My Experience Of Cyclothymic Depression

What Is Cyclothymic Depression?

A lot of people want to know what the difference is between a normal low mood, major depression, and cyclothymic depression. So I thought I'd write a blog post to describe my own experience of depression in cyclothymic disorder.

If you don't already know, cyclothymic disorder is characterised by fluctuations of mood, consisting of what the professionals like to call "mild symptoms of depression" and "mild symptoms of hypomania". 

(For an in-depth look at why I argue that cyclothymia is not a "mild" mood disorder, you can read my other blog post - What Is Cyclothymia?)

A person diagnosed with major depression does not have any episodes of mania or hypomania. Sometimes major depression is called "unipolar depression", as opposed to "bipolar depression". If you think of mood disorders as being on a spectrum with two poles; depression and mania, then uni-polar stays down one end having only episodes of depression, and bi-polar swings back and forth.

The symptoms of depression and hypomania that a person with cyclothymic disorder experiences are never enough to meet the medical criteria required to diagnose an actual "episode", and if they were then the overall diagnosis would most probably be changed to bipolar 1 or 2.

One of the main differences between cyclothymia and bipolar types 1 and 2 is that the symptoms a person with cyclothymia experiences are not consistent over the required time span (a minimum of 4 days of hypomanic symptoms and 2 weeks of depressive symptoms for bipolar 2, or at least one whole week of fully manic symptoms for bipolar 1).

Cyclothymic depression is far more unpredictable and inconsistent. Sometimes it comes on heavy having a more severely negative effect on your everyday functioning. Other times it is just a general gloom or flat feeling that taints your experiences but doesn't necessarily stop you from living your life normally. There are also many other aspects that make up the symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, irritability, negative thought-spirals, suicidal ideation, just to mention a few.

Unipolar depression or chronic depression can also feel like this, but the difference is that the depression will not lift and be replaced with symptoms of hypomania. There is no swinging back and forth between low moods and elevated mood states.

Cyclothymic depression can last for just a couple of hours, a couple of days, or a little longer, often punctuated with periods of time where your mood seems to level off or rise up higher, only to plummet back down again not long afterward. 

Sometimes you experience more depressive symptoms clumped together at once, and other times there may just be one or two that stand out.

You might feel like you know why you are feeling low, but a lot of the time your mood may just dip for seemingly no reason at all. We all have our triggers and red flags, but sometimes a depressed state just comes out of nowhere and seems to disappear without a cause too.

People who do not suffer from a mental illness probably experience similar highs and lows. The main differences are the intensity and the fact that there is no mood cycling. 

A Recent Example Of My Experience Of Cyclothymic Depression

I have just come out of a 4 day period of a depressed state, the final three days of which I find very difficult to describe as "mild". 

It was the kind of depression that completely wipes you off your feet, and feels like it has lasted a lot longer than just three days. In fact, I keep having to look back over my mood tracking chart to check that I am not mistaken. I seem to have lost all track of time this week.

We're not just talking about a low mood, although it started off like that. By Saturday evening I had realised that my mood was not what it was that morning. I felt flat and a bit despondent. I had less enthusiasm for things like watching my favourite program or reading my book. I felt a bit tired.

On Sunday I wasn't ready to admit that my mood was dipping and so I willed myself to keep living life normally. 

I took my dog for an extra-long walk, but I knew that my mood wasn't in a good place because I felt a bit lost, unappreciative, and disconnected from the beauty around me. I couldn't find the usual pleasure and enjoyment I always get from taking my dog to the woods and being surrounded by nature. It wasn't relaxing like it should have been. Instead, certain things were irritating me, like how many other people there were who were also walking their dogs in the woods that day. It was Sunday though, it was to be expected. Chin up girl!

On Monday morning I woke up hopeful, with good intentions to stick to my routine and have a productive start to the week, but when I came to sit down at my desk and start work I realised with a sense of impending doom that I wasn't able to. 

I tried to fight it, but the depression just washed over me. I sat in my chair stubbornly for as long as I could (about 20 minutes), staring at my computer screen until I had to surrender and find my way back to bed because suddenly I was exhausted. 

I told myself that I just needed to get a little more sleep and that I could try to start my day again. Alas, I wasn't able to start my week the way I had wanted to, despite many similar attempts throughout the day.

The stress and anxiety attached to not being able to function the way I wanted to, made me very emotional. Crying, although it is a therapeutic release of tension, just wore me out even more. 

Any attempts I made to do anything at all over the next three days were thwarted with extreme heavy waves of depression that swept over me, bringing me back to bed. 

The only thing I was capable of doing during this time was sleeping, and then using pockets of time in between sleep to do the things that I needed to do, like walk my dog, go to the toilet, make a cup of tea, answer the phone when my sister rang.

Along with the heavy depression came intense irritability, mainly generated by my cat's incessant meowing. There is nothing worse when you are feeling so heavy with depression than someone or something needing your attention. 

The sound of my cat's vocals vibrated through my whole body, which was so extremely sensitive to noise that with every meow I actually experienced a kind of painful buzzing in my head and across my chest. My cat was physically hurting me. 

This lead to several meltdowns in which I lashed out at my poor cat, which in turn lead to feelings of guilt and remorse, which only made me want to bury myself deeper underneath the duvet.

By day 2 I was unable to hold a conversation on the phone with my mother. It was so utterly draining just to listen to her talk, never mind me actually attempt to contribute to the conversation. The longer I stayed on the phone the more irritable I felt until I was sitting with my head in my hands close to tears, desperately praying that she would go away.

Sometimes I would sleep for too long so that it was physically painful to stay in bed because my body ached and hurt like rigor mortis was setting in. I couldn't bring myself to move though, until my phone rang, and I knew it was my sister. She calls me at least twice a day. Her phone calls really helped me during these three days. There was only one occasion where I was unable to talk on the phone, the rest of the time, talking with my sister helped to temporarily lift my mood. Perhaps this was because she suffers from depression and talking with her about it helped to validate what I was going through.

Sometimes after sleep I would feel a little lighter and be able to do something vaguely enjoyable, like make a cup of tea and watch something, or write in my journal, but not for very long. Other times I functioned only out of necessity, zombie-fashion. There was no showering, no changing of clothes, any food that I managed to eat tasted of nothing, even my tea didn't really hit the spot like it usually does. I walked my dog around the block each day, bought chocolate for the sugar boost, and then came home and crashed. It was three days of hell.

In The Cyclothymia Workbook by Prentiss Price that I am currently following in an attempt to self-treat my illness without the need for medication, there is a section that lists strategies for lifting depressed mood. During my three days of hell, reading a textbook was the last thing on my mind. Looking through it now I almost feel insulted by the list, like it is suggesting that I didn't try hard enough and that my three days of hell was my own fault because I didn't try to "feed bread crumbs to birds" or "surf the internet for interesting topics".

(The book is actually very good and I have found it very useful in helping me to understand my disorder better and track my moods, but in this depressed state of mind I was not able to benefit from it - don't let that put you off buying the book though. I will add a link here and in the blog sidebar once I have written a full review on it!)

The only thing I was able to do for myself during my three days of hell was rest, and not beat myself up about it. I knew that the depression would lift eventually and that I would feel more able to do things again, but during those three days, it would have been a waste of time and energy.

It's difficult when you suspect that others think that you can do more to help yourself. I find myself switching into defence mode in my head - Do you really think that I want to feel like this? That I want to go without showering, without eating properly, without watching my favourite program or reading the new book I downloaded onto my Kindle? If I was able to make it go away by "writing a poem about a pleasant time" don't you think I'd do that?

Depression is just horrible, and often people don't get it.

The weirdest thing is that one of the side effects of cyclothymia is that once your mood shifts and you feel good again, it's kind of difficult to remember or fully relate to the experience of feeling so low. I'm writing about it now, but I can't quite get my head around the fact that two days ago I could barely drag myself out of bed to feed my pets their dinner. In fact this morning I was singing with the same cat I previously wanted to strangle. Singing. 

Share Your Experiences Of Cyclothymia Depression

Sometimes hearing other people's experiences of what you go through is therapeutic. Maybe that is why you are reading this post? 

Discovering that you are not the only one who has gone through something awful and that it really is as awful as you say it was, can be so validating and help to convince us that we are not completely crazy.

So please feel free to write in the comments below about your own experiences of cyclothymic depression, bipolar depression, unipolar depression, or even your normal low mood experiences for those of you who don't suffer from a diagnosable illness. 

How long does yours last? What does it feel like? Do you have your own ways of coping that work? Do you also feel detached from your experiences of depression when it is all over? I look forward to hearing your stories!

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  1. Depression is terrible. A lot of what you experienced is similar to my bouts with depression. It brings back a lot of bad memories. It’s been a while since I've been through severe depression. I was able to change things around in my life, scale back on things, and medication.

    If at all possible you need to be in touch with a support group in your area.. maybe it doesn’t have to be your precise condition, but a group centered on depression would be helpful. Surround yourself with allies. :)

    1. Hi Dave! I thought that too, about the support group. I really think that they should point you in the direction of these things when you get diagnosed. I didn't get much support or info at all, I had to look into it all myself which was so daunting at the beginning. I have found the facebook groups to be really interesting, but it would be nice to have a smaller circle of regular people to meet and chat with. i will look into it again once lockdown etc becomes more relaxed. Thanks for the tips :)


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I write about a variety of topics, including mental disorders (like bipolar, cyclothymia, depression and anxiety) but also everyday mental health challenges and self-care tips. Subscribe to my mailing list and never miss a post...