Dysthymia is a mild to moderate form of depression that often persists for several years. Although the exact causes of dysthymia are unknown, dysthymia symptoms occur in women more often than in men and may affect up to 5 percent of the general population.

Dysthymia is considered “early onset” if symptoms begin before the age of 21 and “late onset” if symptoms begin at age 21 or later. Unlike major depression, a condition more likely to begin later in life, dysthymia symptoms are more likely to begin during childhood or adolescence. Children who feel sad or depressed may not realize that their feelings are unusual and may not complain about them.

The causes of dysthymia in a particular person are usually a combination of various factors. As with other forms of depression, dysthymia tends to run in families, although researchers haven’t identified any one specific gene linked to this disease.

The Biology of Dysthymia

Researchers are currently studying the role of neurotransmitters in cases of clinical depression. These are chemicals that transmit messages between nerve cells (neurons). The three neurotransmitters that researchers believe are involved in depression Ñ and possibly involved in dysthymia Ñ are serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. These neurotransmitters help regulate:

  • Appetite
  • Emotions
  • Sexuality
  • Sleep
  • Stress reactions.

Researchers are also studying the role of hormones in depression. Many depressed people have abnormal levels of some hormones in their blood, even though they have healthy glands.

Personal and Social Risk Factors

Other possible dysthymia causes or risk factors include:

  • Chronic medical illness
  • Chronic stress, particularly with feelings of hopelessness/helplessness
  • Loss and grief
  • Social isolation.

People with dysthymia often ponder the same thoughts over and over, rather than problem solving or cognitive restructuring (thinking more useful thoughts). This pondering pattern of thought may increase the risk of dysthymia or feed existing dysthymia symptoms.

People diagnosed with the following personality traits have an increased risk of dysthymia:

  • Antisocial (disregard for others and aggressive behavior)
  • Borderline personality (impulsive and risky behavior, volatile relationships and unstable mood)
  • Dependent
  • Depressed
  • Histrionic (seeking constant attention and excessively emotional)
  • Schizotypal (turning inward and having few or no intimate relationships).

Dysthymia left untreated typically causes the condition to worsen. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, more than half of people with dysthymia eventually have an episode of major depression. So, if you or someone you know are having dysthymia symptoms, consult a knowledgeable and supportive health care provider.


Harvard Mental Health Letter Staff. (2005). Dysthymia. Retrieved May 24, 2010, from the Harvard Health Publications website: www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Dysthymia.htm.

Langenfeld, S.C. (2009). Dysthymic disorder. Retrieved May 24, 2010, from the eMedicine website: emedicine.medscape.com/article/290686-overview.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2008). Dysthymia (dysthymic disorder): Causes. Retrieved May 24, 2010, from the Mayo Clinic website: www.mayoclinic.com/health/dysthymia/DS01111/DSECTION=causes.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2008). Dysthymia (dysthymic disorder): Risk factors. Retrieved May 24, 2010, from the Mayo Clinic website: www.mayoclinic.com/health/dysthymia/DS01111/DSECTION=causes.

Price, P. (2004). Biological causes of depression. Retrieved May 24, 2010, from the All About Depression website: www.allaboutdepression.com/cau_02.html.

 Posted on : June 12, 2014