Differences Between Dysthymia and Depression

Dysthymia and depression can both result in feelings of deep sadness and hopelessness. However, these two conditions vary in the severity and consistency of their symptoms.

While some people may use the terms above, the medical classifications for dysthymia and depression are persistent depressive disorder (PDD) and major depressive disorder (MDD), respectively.

Understanding these differences can be an important first step toward getting the right treatment.

Read on to learn more about how the conditions differ in their symptoms, how medical professionals can diagnose them, and what treatment options are available to you.

What are dysthymia (PDD) and depression (MDD)?

Both conditions are relatively common. According to estimates, over 7 percent of all adults in the United States will have experienced a major depressive episode in the last year, while around 2.5 percent will experience PDD at least once in their lifetime.

Dysthymia (PDD)

PDD is a chronic form of depression that’s less severe than MDD but lasts for years. It can significantly affect your:

  • relationships
  • family life
  • social life
  • physical health
  • daily activities
Depression (MDD)

MDD is a common medical illness that negatively affects the way you think, feel, and act.

This may lead to emotional and physical problems that can interfere with your ability to function at home and work.

Differences between dysthymia (PDD) and depression (MDD)

Medical professionals typically use PDD to describe a person who experiences clinically significant depression over a long period.

As a result, the most significant difference between the two conditions is how long a person may experience symptoms.

For a diagnosis of MDD, symptoms must last at least 2 weeks, and for a diagnosis of PDD, symptoms must have been present for at least 2 years.

The two conditions also differ in terms of recurrence and severity.

While people with PDD will typically experience depression for longer than someone with clinical depression, their symptoms may not be severe enough for an MDD diagnosis. However, people with PDD can still experience major depressive episodes.

Between these episodes, people with PDD will return to feelings of general, less severe depression.

In contrast, people who exclusively have MDD may return to a regular mood baseline between major episodes. During this time, they may not experience any symptoms of depression at all.

Symptoms of dysthymia (PDD) and depression (MDD)

The symptoms of MDD and PDD are similar but differ in intensity and how long they last, as described above.

Symptoms of PDD and MDD include:

  • feeling sad, empty, tearful or hopeless
  • responding to even small matters with anger or frustration
  • losing interest in normal daily activities, such as sports, sex, or hobbies
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • responding to even small tasks with a lack of energy
  • losing appetite or increasing food cravings
  • losing or gaining weight
  • feeling guilty or worthless
  • having trouble making decisions, thinking, concentrating and remembering

Treatment options for dysthymia (PDD) and depression (MDD)

While medical professionals will individually tailor treatment programs for any type of depression, the treatments for PDD and MDD are similar.

The main routes of treatment are programs of short- and long-term medications and therapy sessions. Combining these two methods of treatment is more effective than either treatment by itself.


For either condition, your doctor might recommend antidepressants, such as:

  • fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • sertraline (Zoloft)
  • desvenlafaxine (Pristiq, Khedezla)
  • levomilnacipran (Fetzima)

Alongside medication programs to treat PDD and MDD, a doctor may recommend you participate in psychotherapy, which people also refer to as talk therapy.

Psychotherapy involves one-on-one sessions with a mental health professional. This can be in person or remote through teletherapy.

One promising type of therapy for the treatment of PDD and MDD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

As the name suggests, CBT is a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy. Cognitive therapy concerns your thoughts and emotions, while behavioral therapy relates to your actions. This form of therapy can help you better cope with existing depressive symptoms by creating safe coping habits and focusing on symptom acceptance.

Through CBT, mental health professionals will help you develop ways to identify, understand, and deal with the factors causing your depression. CBT can treat PDD and MDD in the short term and may also help reduce the risk of relapse in the future.

The takeaway

Whether you’re experiencing PDD, MDD, or another type of depression, these are all real and serious conditions. There is help available. With a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, the majority of people with depression can overcome it or learn to manage their symptoms.

If you recognize symptoms of depression in your mood, behavior, and outlook, talk about it with your doctor or a mental health professional.

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