What is Atypical Depression?

Atypical Depression

Sometimes, life’s overwhelming tasks and responsibilities can run us into a funk. We may feel fatigued and find ourselves sleeping more than usual. We may feel hungrier than usual and irritable at small inconveniences.

But, if you’re experiencing these symptoms all the time, you may have atypical depression. And it’s time to consult a medical professional.

Many of us overeat, experience low energy, or become irritable from time to time. But atypical depression is a serious issue that requires immediate medical attention.

Here is what you need to know about atypical depression and how to cope with it.

What Is Atypical Depression?

Atypical Depression is a subcategory of major depression or dysthymic disorder. Usually, a person with atypical depression experienced major depression during their teenage years.

Major depression disorder (MDD) is a mental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to think, feel and behave. The common symptoms of MDD include the following:

  • feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • anxiety or irritability
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
  • difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
  • fatigue
  • suicidal thoughts

While some of these symptoms are also found in atypical depression, there are symptoms unique to atypical depression.

Common Symptoms of Atypical Depression

It can be difficult to distinguish atypical depression from major depression symptoms. Both forms of depression share similar symptoms.

But the main symptom that distinguishes atypical depression from major depression is mood reactivity. Mood reactivity is when an individual’s mood improves upon a positive experience.

To be diagnosed with atypical depression, one has to exhibit two of the following symptoms along with mood reactivity:

  • sleeping too much
  • high appetite and weight gain
  • experiencing feelings of overwhelm, paralysis and heaviness in the body
  • having intense reactions to rejection, contributing to tension in relationships

Many diseases and disorders often have a common cause that triggers certain symptoms.

Common Causes

Scientists believe that depression is caused by the impaired function of brain circuits that regulate mood. Brain cells produce neurotransmitters or “chemical messengers” that keep the brain functioning properly. 

But people with depression pump out either too little or too many neurotransmitters. This results in a dysregulated mood. Common neurotransmitters responsible for mood disorders include the following:

  • dopamine — responsible for movement, motivation, and perception
  • serotonin — regulates sleep, appetite, mood, and pain
  • norepinephrine — narrows blood vessels, triggers anxiety, and may help with motivation and reward
  • acetylcholine — responsible for learning and recall; enhances memory 

Scientists haven’t discovered the exact cause of depression. But there are common risk factors, including the following:

  • genetics
  • a significant loss (i.e, divorce, death, loss of friends)
  • interpersonal conflicts and feelings of guilt
  • major life changes (i.e, moving, loss of job/changing jobs, graduating)
  • abuse (physical, sexual, emotional)
  • substance abuse
  • serious illness (i.e, cancer, HIV, heart disease)

These are common questions a doctor will ask you to test if you have atypical depression.


Consult your doctor about your symptoms to find out if you have atypical depression. Your doctor will run evaluations to determine if you are suffering from the disorder.

  • physical examination: Your doctor may order a physical examination. This allows them to collect background information on your physical and mental wellbeing.

Your doctor will likely order lab tests including a thyroid function test and a blood count. A thyroid test can uncover the root causes of some of your symptoms. 

  • psychological evaluation: Your doctor may run a psychological evaluation. This allows them to check for signs of atypical depression.

They may ask questions about your personal life and past experiences. They will also ask about current symptoms, current medications, and family history.

Your doctor will diagnose you with the disorder if they find:

  • there is no underlying condition causing your symptoms
  • you pass the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)

After your diagnosis, your doctor will prescribe some coping strategies to regulate the disorder.

Coping Strategies

If you are dealing with atypical depression, talk to a medical health professional. Treatment for this mood disorder will vary. Doctors usually prescribe a combination of medications, therapy, and lifestyle changes.

  • medications: It is common for doctors to prescribe antidepressants for depression. For atypical depression, research shows that tricyclic antidepressants are ineffective.

But, common antidepressants like Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOs), including phenelzine (Nardil), are effective for this disorder.

Ask your doctor about the side effects of these drugs. The use of these antidepressants may need diet changes. They may negatively interact with drugs like birth control, decongestants, and herbal supplements. 

  • therapy: Your doctor may refer you or encourage you to go to therapy. This requires you to meet often with a therapist or counselor. 

The therapist or counselor will help you acknowledge and express your feelings. They will also help you identify negative thoughts and find solutions. This coping strategy will help you manage your condition and change your perceptions. 

  • lifestyle changes: Changes to lifestyle routines and habits may help relieve atypical depression. Common ways to do this are to avoid drugs and alcohol, eat well and exercise.

You should also focus on sleep, reduce stress factors, and practice relaxation techniques.

Using these coping strategies has proven effective for individuals with atypical depression.  

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know is exhibiting symptoms of atypical depression, seek help from a doctor immediately. 

Atypical depression can affect the mental, physical and social aspects of your life. Coping strategies like talk therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes can help manage it. 

To learn more about mental health, visit our blog.

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