19th Dec 2022
Atypical depression is a subtype of depression characterized by persistent low mood and a loss of interest in things that usually bring pleasure. It differs from other types of depressive disorders in several ways, including excessive eating (and weight gain), excessive sleeping and extreme sensitivity to rejection by others.
Atypical depression is a common kind of depression. The term ‘atypical’ doesn’t mean it is rare – this is just the term used to distinguish it from other forms of depression, such as melancholic or catatonic. As with other kinds of depressive disorder, the main symptoms are depressed mood and a loss of interest in things that usually bring pleasure, which can have a significant impact on a person’s life.
It differs from other forms of depression in various ways, notably overeating, oversleeping, extreme sensitivity to rejection by others and a feeling of heaviness or being weighed down. People with the atypical subtype of depression also find that their mood can lift when something good happens, which is not usually the case with other depressive subtypes.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by mental health professionals in the US to diagnose mental health problems, someone with atypical depression must first meet the diagnostic criteria for depression. The symptoms are as follows and a person must have at least five of them, including one of the top two, for two weeks or more:
People with atypical depression will also experience some or all of the following:
The exact causes of atypical depression are unknown. As with other forms of depression and other mental health problems, it is likely that there is a link between atypical depression and the levels of certain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in the brain. Neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin, which can affect mood, sleep, appetite, and other functions.
There are also some known risk factors. The risk of developing atypical depression may be higher in someone who:
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, atypical depression can be diagnosed if a person meets the criteria for depression, plus at least two of the symptoms for atypical depression listed above.
Diagnosis is done by a doctor or other mental health professional following a psychological evaluation, which includes a discussion of the signs and symptoms of depression, a review of medical history and sometimes questionnaires.
Depression, including atypical depression, can’t necessarily be prevented. However, as with many mental health problems, taking steps to avoid stress, getting enough sleep and avoiding alcohol and drugs may reduce the risk of atypical depression developing.
Effective treatment for atypical depression includes medication and therapy.
Your doctor or healthcare provider may prescribe an antidepressant medication to help alleviate the depressive symptoms of atypical depression. These work by regulating chemicals in the brain that help control mood, sleep, and appetite, among other functions.
There are several different kinds of therapy that can help patients with depression, including:
Living with atypical depression can be difficult but there are things you can do to support your own wellbeing:
Opening up to someone you know you can trust can help you feel less alone.
Staying active, keeping your blood sugar on an even keel and avoiding alcohol and drugs will serve your mind as well as your body.
Mindful meditation has been linked to lower levels of depression  and there are many free and low-cost apps that will guide you in short daily sessions.
Research has shown that ‘ecotherapy’ – being outdoors in nature for exercise or activities such as gardening – can improve wellbeing.
Atypical depression and melancholic depression share many common characteristics, but have a few key differences.
All subtypes of depression have the core symptoms of persistent low mood and a loss of interest in things that would usually give the person pleasure.
People with atypical depression have specific atypical symptoms including overeating and weight gain, and oversleeping. They will also find their mood lifts when something good happens.
In contrast, someone with melancholic depression may experience a loss of appetite and lose weight and is likely to wake up early rather than oversleep. Their mood is not usually lifted by external, positive events.