Dysthymia: Myth or Monster?

Chronic, low-level depression has reached such epidemic proportions that the medical community has given it a name – Dysthymia (pronounced dis-thigh-me-ah). It’s a big problem affecting nearly 8% of the U.S. population. Low-grade depression (dysthymia) is one of the most common ailments on the planet and one of the least likely to be diagnosed. Like its cousin, clinical depression, low-grade depression hits women roughly twice as often as men. Dysthymia is, by definition, chronic. A diagnosis requires the presence of symptoms on more days than not for a period of at least two years, which is what makes it so hard to pin down. Any given day might be okay, even happy. Yet in the general run of days, there are more gray ones than not, more unhappiness than joy. Most people afflicted with this kind of chronic malaise instinctively blame themselves: They would rather believe they can solve the problem-if they could just find the right job or the right man or lose weight-than admit they have a psychiatric disorder. Unfortunately, many people who are suffering do not seek help because they have been feeling this way for so long, the feelings of depression and malaise are their “normal”.

The presence of two or more of the following symptoms persisting for at least two years is indicative of dysthymia in adults:

  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Feelings of hopelessness

So, what’s the problem? Why are so many women having such an issue with anxiety and/or depression? One reasons is that we are taught and conditioned from our first day on this planet to go after “the American Dream” (or the European dream, or the Australian Dream – or whatever – you get our point) – to have it all – the family, the relationship, the career, the house, car, money, etc. Over time, one of two things seems to happen – either you fall short in one or more areas of life and eventually give up on your dreams, or you actually get it all and find yourself in this place of comfort and routine with no new goals on the horizon. In either case, you find yourself in a dark place where you feel absolutely stuck and dissatisfied with your life and if left unchecked, that dissatisfaction has a nasty way of manifesting itself as chronic, low level depression.

The mental health experts have identified all kinds of underlying factors why women, in particular, are so susceptible to developing depression in their middle years. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women develop depression at more than twice the rate of men. We’ve boiled these factors down into six basic areas:

Frazzlemania (Overload): The demands on women today are huge! Most middle-aged women have careers, families, households, aging parents and a myriad of other responsibilities vying for their time and attention. Striking a balance between all of them has a tendency to leave one feeling like a failure – spend too much time on the career and the children suffer – too much time on the kids and the marriage suffers – you can see the problem. plus, many women were born at a time when it was very common for women to be stay-at-home-moms and there is guilt in play as well when they feel they are not doing as good a job managing everything as their own mother did. The guilt, coupled with the sense of failure and stress, make a fertile ground for depression to take root.

2nd Class Setback (Societal Gender Inequity): As evolved as we would like to think we are, the fact remains that in much of the industrialized world, women are often still not valued at the same level as men. Women who do not work outside the home are often perceived as sitting around watching soap operas and eating bonbons during the day. Women who do take time away from their careers to raise children have a difficult, if not impossible, time making up lost ground in terms of pay and retirement savings. These types of “no-win” scenarios can lead women to feel like second-class citizens and cause stress and hopelessness.

Foggy Glasses Syndrome: Depression is very much a disease of perception. Everywhere we look we see images of perfection – the perfect body, the perfect car, the perfect house, the perfect relationship, the perfect children, etc. Perfection is an illusion, yet everyone is trying to attain it. These images are hard to live up to at any age, but become particularly glaring as we age. Constant exposure to these images of perfection works on us in subtle, subconscious ways making us feel “less than”.

The Sucker Punch (Traumatic Life Events): How we react to unexpected events in life certainly affects our mood and emotions. A stressful life event can plunge a person into depression, especially if a person is at risk for depression due to other factors. Stressful life events may include: prolonged medical illness; illness or death of a loved one; divorce; ending a close relationship; loss of a job; relocating; and financial or legal problems.

The Clone-Effect (Environmental Factors): The environment in which you were raised can be a major factor underlying your susceptibility to depression. If you were raised to think you were never good enough or that you were a “bad” kid or other negative ideas, these ideas are incorporated into your self-image over time. If you have a negative self-image, the twists and turns of life can make you much more susceptible to becoming depressed.

Comfortitis (Comfort vs. Achievement): This was my KEY underlying factor! I was a goal achiever from Day One – I always wanted to be doing it better, faster, smarter than anyone thought possible. Once I got to a point in my life where I had achieved the major goals I had set for myself, I became “comfortable” and in that “comfort”, found myself utterly miserable. There are many people who need to constantly be striving for the next goal – without it, they feel rudderless, without purpose, and depression can easily take hold.

Regardless of the underlying factor (or factors) that caused it, the first step in getting through the depression is to admit that there is a problem. How many conversations have you had with yourself saying that you have to find a way to be okay with your lives, to accept it – this was just the way it was! Well, that’s just not true! The life you are living right now is not the way it has to be! You are not a slave to your circumstances!

Sadly, everyone will at some time in their life be affected by depression, whether it be their own or someone else’s. Fifty-four percent of those people believe depression is a personal weakness and that there is no hope for them to get through it, which is why 80% of people suffering from chronic, low level depression are not currently having any treatment. And get this, A National Mental Health Association survey showed that more than 50% of women believe depression is a “normal part of aging” and that treatment for depression during menopause is not necessary!

According to the World Health Organization depression is the second largest killer of man, after heart disease, with studies showing that depression is a contributory factor to fatal coronary disease. and current projections show depression overtaking heart disease as the #1 killer worldwide by the year 2020. There have even been studies done showing links between depression and illness including osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer, eye disease and back pain.

But you know, we just don’t pay as much attention to our mental health and well-being as we do our physical health. We read those statistics and most of us just shrug and say there is nothing I can do about it, that’s just life. Well, in part, that’s true. It is your life and that is because everything we do, every feeling we have and our belief system and the programming we received as a child are driving every result we are getting. That self-image, that belief system, is nothing more than a huge collection of habits – the programming. It’s happening in the background and without your permission. It’s like a computer virus. Those little bugs get inside your computer and wreak havoc, but they don’t keep you from using your computer until things get so bad that the system just crashes. They operate in the background, not caring what you try to do, they just carry out their program unbeknownst to you. So how do you keep from becoming a statistic? Is there a way to change your programming?

The cool thing is that it really is possible and actually quite simple to re-program your “hard drive” with clean, virus-free programs of your choosing! It is so simple (although not necessarily EASY), but it’s not something that we’re generally taught. There’s nothing new about it – it’s been around for thousands of years, but it’s stuff that isn’t taught in school – although it certainly should be!

That feeling that life is hopeless or out of control, being angry at yourself for not being able to do anything about it, changes in sleep or eating habits, loss of interest in engaging in activities that once gave you joy – we’ve convinced ourselves that all of these are normal parts of life. We convince ourselves further that as long as we are not under a doctor’s care or on prescription medications that everything is okay. But the fact is that these are all signs that something is wrong and the cause can be traced back to some “virus” in your mind. The emotional pain that you feel is the higher side of yourself screaming at you to live up to your infinite potential – to do more, be more, have more!

There is help out there! Traditional programs for stress and behavior modification get you all hyped up with motivation, but offer no follow through action plan. Think of the typical diet program – it teaches you how to modify your behavior to eat in a certain way, to exercise a certain way, but fails to address the root cause of the excess weight – the self-image – the programming! For lasting change to occur the cause of the problem has to be tackled, not just the symptoms.

It is your birthright to be happy and prosperous and your obligation to be all you can possibly be. Why on earth should we settle for the status quo when greatness and abundance beyond our wildest dreams is within our grasp?