With depression being one of the most prevalent mental illnesses in America, it’s likely you’ve heard of the various types of depression. Perhaps these sound familiar: major depression, chronic depression, and postpartum depression. But have you ever heard of atypical depression? Despite its name, atypical depression actually is not uncommon or abnormal; it’s just the way the depression presents itself is not typical for other depressive disorders (Atypical Depression, 2018). People with atypical depression differ in the fact that they tend to feel temporary relief from their symptoms when receiving sympathy or having a friend or family member visit.
Atypical depression, just like chronic or major depression, can take a toll on your daily life by negatively impacting your mood and feelings (Symptoms of Depression, 2019). Those suffering from atypical depression still exhibit typical signs of any form of depression, including fatigue, trouble concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in things that were once pleasurable, sleeping too much or too little, overeating or undereating, and possibly suicidal thoughts or ideation (Symptoms of Depression, 2019).
Some of the distinct characteristics that cause atypical depression to be its own form of depression were researched and discovered by Harvard Medical School. Scientists found patients struggling with what is now classified as atypical depression. Patients complained of many physical symptoms, one of which was a feeling of heaviness in the arms and legs (Harvard Health, 2014). They also found that these patients had a tendency to oversleep and overeat, never the opposite way around. These patients also tended to feel worse in the evening time rather than in the morning. The biggest distinction, however, was the inconsistency of their depressed mood and feelings. The scientists at Harvard said the patients with atypical depression differed in the sense that it was easier to lift their moods; “they were not sad all the time but able to cheer up at least momentarily in response to sympathy, compliments, or a visit from a child” (Harvard Health, 2014).
The scientists also noted that the majority of those classified with atypical depression tend to be highly sensitive to what they regard as rejection by lovers and others. They also tend to have many phobias, panic attacks, and severe premenstrual symptoms (Harvard Health, 2014). These symptoms are unusual because most patients are more constantly sad, wake up early rather than oversleep, feel worse in the morning rather than the evening, and eat less rather than more (Harvard Health, 2015).
The exact cause of atypical depression is still unknown. Doctors have inferred that neurotransmitters play a key role, similar to other forms of depression. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When these chemicals are abnormal or impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, leading to depression (Symptoms of Depression, 2019). Besides the biological aspect, trauma, childhood neglect, and environmental stressors can all contribute to the onset of depression.
Treatment for atypical depression is similar to other forms of depression. A combination of psychotherapy and medication together seem to be most successful. Doctors are not sure exactly why, but the type of medication that seems to be most effective in treating atypical depression belongs to one of the oldest classes of antidepressants: monoamine oxidase (MAOs). MAOs can have potentially severe side effects, which is why they are prescribed sparingly and never without extreme caution. Experts feel that MAOs, especially phenelzine (Nardil), can be effective for atypical depression. They may also help with anxiety, panic, and other specific symptoms (Atypical Depression, 2018). A strict diet must be followed while taking MAOs to prevent specific food interactions from occurring with food or medications, such as decongestants and certain herbal supplements. MAOs also can not be combined with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) (Atypical Depression, 2018). The interactions that can occur between MAOIs and certain substances can be severe or even deadly. Caution must be taken when prescribing these medications in order to produce the most desired results.
Overall, it’s essential that people understand there are different forms of depression and not all of them exhibit the same symptoms or respond to the same treatments. Those struggling with atypical depression should not feel ostracized or different just because their depression may not present itself in the same way that other typical depressive disorders do. If you or someone you know thinks they may be suffering from atypical depression, please do not hesitate to reach out to a mental health care professional for help.
Atypical depression. (2018, August 28). Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/atypical-depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20369747
Publishing, H. (n.d.). Atypical depression. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Atypical_depression
Signs of clinical depression: Symptoms to watch for. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/detecting-depression