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Affective Disorders

What is an affective disorder?

Affective disorders are a set of psychiatric diseases, also called mood disorders. The main types of affective disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. Symptoms vary by individual, and can range from mild to severe.

A psychiatrist or other trained mental health professional can diagnose an affective disorder. This is done with a psychiatric evaluation.

Affective disorders can be disruptive to your life. However, there are effective treatments available, including both medication and psychotherapy.

Types of affective disorders

The three main types of affective disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. Each includes subtypes and variations in severity.


Depression, or major depressive disorder, is characterized by feelings of extreme sadness and hopelessness. It’s more than simply feeling down for a day or two. If you have depression, you may experience episodes that last for several days or even weeks. A milder form of depression is called dysthymia.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder means having periods of depression, and periods of mania. Mania is when you feel extremely positive and active. This may sound good, but mania also makes you feel irritable, aggressive, impulsive, and even delusional. There are different types of bipolar. They’re classified by the severity of depression and mania, as well as by how often mood swings occur.

Anxiety disorders

There are several different types of anxiety disorders. All are characterized by feelings of nervousness, anxiety, and even fear. The classification include:

  • social anxiety: anxiety caused by social situations
  • post-traumatic stress disorder: anxiety, fear, and flashbacks caused by a traumatic event
  • generalized anxiety disorder: anxiousness and fear in general, with no particular cause
  • panic disorder: anxiety that causes panic attacks
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder: obsessive thoughts that cause anxiety and compulsive actions

Symptoms of affective disorders

The symptoms of affective disorders can vary greatly. There are some common signs, however, for each of the three main types.


  • prolonged sadness
  • irritability or anxiety
  • lethargy and lack of energy
  • lack of interest in normal activities
  • major changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feelings of guilt
  • aches and pains that have no physical explanation
  • suicidal thoughts
  • unusual and chronic mood swings

Bipolar disorder

  • during depression: symptoms similar to those for major depressive disorder
  • during mania: less sleep and feelings of exaggerated self-confidence, irritability, aggression, self-importance, impulsiveness, recklessness, or in severe cases delusions or hallucinations

Anxiety disorders

  • constant worry
  • obsessive thoughts
  • restlessness
  • trouble concentrating
  • trembling
  • irritability
  • difficulty sleeping
  • sweating
  • shortness of breath and rapid heart rate
  • nausea

Causes of affective disorders

The causes of affective disorders are not fully understood. Neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, play a major role in affecting mood. When they’re imbalanced in some way, or don’t signal properly to your brain, an affective disorder can be the result. What causes the imbalance is not fully known.

Life events can trigger affective disorders. A traumatic event or personal loss can cause depression or another affective disorder. Use of alcohol and drugs is also a risk factor.

There also seems to be a genetic factor. If someone in your family has one of these disorders, you are at a greater risk for developing one as well. This means that they are hereditary. However, this doesn’t guarantee you will develop an affective disorder just because a family member has one.

Diagnosis of affective disorders

There are no medical tests to diagnose affective disorders. To make a diagnosis, a psychiatrist or other trained mental health professional can give you a psychiatric evaluation. They follow set guidelines. Expect to be asked about your symptoms.

Treatments for affective disorders

There are two main treatments for affective disorders: medication and therapy. Treatment usually involves a combination of both.

There are many different antidepressant medications available. You may need to try several before you find one that helps relieve your symptoms without too many side effects.

Psychotherapy in addition to medication is also an important part of treatment. It can help you learn to cope with your disorder and help change your behaviors that contribute to it.

Outlook for affective disorders

With appropriate and long-term treatment, the recovery outlook for affective disorder is good. It’s important to understand that in most cases, these are chronic conditions. Most often they have to be treated over the long-term. While some cases are severe, most people with affective disorders who are using treatment can live a normal life.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Mary Ellen Ellis
Medically reviewed on: Oct 14, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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