Depression & Dysthymic Disorder~ What’s the difference?

The associated symptoms of Dysthymic Executive disorder are similar to those for a Major Depressive Disorder (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). In Dysthymic Disorder common symptoms include feelings of inadequacy; generalized loss of interest or pleasure; social withdrawal; feelings of guilt or brooding about the past; subjective feelings of irritability or excessive anger and decreased productivity (including activity and effectiveness). Vegetative Symptoms are less common for Dysthymic Disorder than for clients in a Major Depressive Disorder. Additionally, up to 75% of clients with Dysthymic Disorder for more than five years will develop into Major Depressive Disorder (DSM-IV-TR). The differential diagnosis between dysthymic Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder is made “particularly difficult by the facts that the two disorders share similar symptoms and that the differences between them in onset, duration, persistence, and severity are not easy to evaluate retrospectively” (p.379).

According to the DSM-IV-TR it seems to be a matter of severity and interference in a person’s life that most distinguishes the difference between the terms Dysthymic and Major. “Dysthymic” is like a starting point, whereas “Major” implies great, significant and deeply important. The symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder are cognitive, behavioral and physical and can derail a person’s normal functioning. The symptoms for Dysthymic disorder are less persistent, and not so interwoven within the client’s worldview and experience of self.

Aside from overlapping cluster symptoms, additionally to further complicate the creation of an accurate diagnosis other associative disorders, such as anxiety, can be present and occur co morbidly. “At the diagnostic level there are very high levels of co morbidity between mood and anxiety disorders” (Butcher, Mineka & Hooley, 2007, p.231).

Overlapping symptoms are associated with milder forms of depression and Major Depressive disorder. The client may show many severe symptoms such as feeling physically tired having: trouble concentrating,  feelings of worthlessness,  low energy and feeling somewhat estranged from normal activities, and/or responsibilities.

In truth, the etiology of depression is complicated and multidimensional, thus offering a distinction between Dysthymic and Major Depression that is blurry at best. Without the distinguishing criteria of severity, interference, and losing all interest in what previously brought pleasure, up to a point the symptoms are almost interchangeable.

Depression can occur during any stage throughout a person’s lifespan. The main symptoms of Major Depression Disorder are depressed mood (persistent sadness and depression, and /or feeling down); crying; sleep problems; weight loss or gain; psychomotor agitation or retardation; suicidal ideation; poor concentration; low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness or guilt; fatigue and several subtypes like melancholic, catatonic, or psychotic features (Spark Chart, Abnormal Psychology, 2004).

Dysthymic disorder has similar symptoms; only they are much less severe.


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). DSM-IV-TR. Arlington, VA: Author.

Butcher, J. N., Hooley, J. M., & Mineka, S. (2007). Abnormal psychology (13th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.

SparkChart, 2004. “Abnormal Psychology”. Barnes & Noble : USA

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