The Language of Mood Disorders

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  •  People unfamiliar with the world of medicine often find the terminology used quite baffling and frustrating. Unfortunately things don't get much better in the world of psychology or psychiatry. To the insider, the jargon used often has a very precise meaning, but to the person who just wants some help for their troubles it can seem like another set of hurdles to jump at a time when they could really do without it. Although I can't do anything about that, one thing I can do is spend a little time unpicking some of the more common words and phrases you might be confronted with when listening to health professionals or conducting your own research.

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    Perhaps a good place to start is with the title. The term mood disorder refers to a variety of conditions where some disturbance in mood is central. Imagine a horizontal line on a piece of paper. At one end write depression, at the other write mania. These extremes of mood are what we think of as mood disorders. The rest of the line comprises all the various highs and lows we experience. Extreme moods have a habit of lasting a long time, feel very uncomfortable and disrupt work and social activities.


    I've just used the term depression as though it exists as a well defined thing in its own right. When most people use the term depression or depressed, they are generally referring to a feeling of low mood or of being a bit downbeat about things. Clinical use of the term is different. For example the symptoms of bipolar depression (depression that sometimes alternates or corresponds with mania) may be different to those of unipolar depression (depression only).


    The term affect is commonly used as in, for example, an affective disorder. Basically affect means emotion, but slightly more accurately it refers to our personal experience of emotion. So a term like affective disorder is basically the same as mood disorder.


    Some other terms associated with mood disorders:


    Anhedonia: low mood most of the time.

    Chronic depression: depression (mild, moderate or severe) that lasts at least two years.

    Cyclothymia: persistent instability of mood, moving between mild depression and elation.

    Delusions: delusions are false beliefs. A significant minority of people with depression experience them (I am unworthy, guilty, being persecuted) but they frequently occur in mania and mostly as delusions of grandeur (I have special powers, I am the son of God) which may explain why the diagnosis of schizophrenia is sometimes wrongly applied.

    Diurnal variation: mood worse in the morning.

    Hypomania: symptoms of mood elation not quite as severe or extreme as mania.

    Melancholia: is actually a severe form of depression with quite prominent symptoms such as marked weight loss and psychomotor retardation (see below).

    Psychomotor retardation: refers to the slowing down of mental (psycho) and physical (motor) activities, often seen in depression.


    The golden rule with all jargon is to ask the person to explain what they mean and to tone it down. A consultation shouldn't be a test of your intelligence or vocabulary, and neither should it be a stressful experience. A medical consultation is for you and you must set the agenda, even if it feels an effort to do so. Don't be afraid to say you don't understand as it's the job of health professionals to be understood; ultimately this benefits them as much as it does you.

Published On: June 14, 2011