While mood fluctuations are a natural part of the human experience, cyclothymia, also known as cyclothymic disorder, represents a more pronounced and persistent pattern of mood swings. This milder variant of bipolar disorder can significantly impact daily life and requires proper understanding and management to recognize its signs and address symptoms.

What is Cyclothymia?

Cyclothymia is a less common, milder subtype of bipolar disorder. It’s characterized by alternating periods of hypomania (elevated mood) and depression, each lasting days to months. Though these mood shifts can challenge daily functioning, they are not as intense as those experienced in bipolar I and II.


Cyclothymia presents as recurrent mood changes, with individuals switching between emotional highs and lows. These shifts can have up to a month of stable mood before the cycle starts again.

Hypomania Symptoms

Hypomania is a phase of increased energy and elevated mood. While it can enhance focus and productivity, it also carries potential risks, such as impulsive decision-making and risky behaviors. Symptoms include:

  • Extremely high self-esteem and optimism
  • Racing thoughts
  • Agitation
  • Increased physical activity
  • Goal-driven behaviors
  • Irritability and distractibility

Depressive Symptoms

This phase is marked by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and diminished interest in previously enjoyed activities. Symptoms include:

  • Social isolation
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability and tearfulness
  • In severe cases, suicidal thoughts


Cyclothymia typically occurs in adolescence or early adulthood, affecting men and women similarly. However, the cause of the cyclothymic disorder is unknown. Like other mood disorders, the cause is likely a combination of individual and environmental risk factors like these:

  • Genetic Predisposition: A family history of mood disorders can increase the risk.
    Traumatic Events: Experiences like sexual assault or traumatic events can trigger the onset.
  • Chronic Stress: Prolonged stress can make symptoms worse.
  • Brain Changes: Differences in brain function, neurobiology, and structure might also play a role.

Risk Factors

People predisposed to cyclothymia are more likely to develop clinical symptoms if exposed to environmental risk factors, such as:

  • Substance abuse
  • Death of a loved one
  • Childhood mistreatment or abuse
  • Relationship changes
  • Job loss or disability
  • Pregnancy


A comprehensive assessment, including medical tests and family history discussions, is essential to rule out other conditions and confirm a cyclothymia diagnosis.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) establishes the following criteria for diagnosing cyclothymia:

  • Recurrent hypomanic and depressive episodes over two years, present for at least half of that time
  • Stable mood periods lasting less than two months
  • Significant life disruption due to symptoms
  • Symptoms that don’t align with other mental disorders
  • Absence of substance-induced or medical condition-related symptoms

Cyclothymia vs. Bipolar Disorder

Both cyclothymia and bipolar disorder fall under the umbrella of mood disorders, characterized by periods of elevated mood and periods of depression. However, there are distinct differences between the two in terms of intensity, duration, and clinical presentation:

  • The Intensity of Episodes: The elevated moods in cyclothymia, termed hypomania, are less severe than the full-blown mania seen in bipolar I disorder.
  • The Duration of Episodes: The mood fluctuations in cyclothymia, both hypomanic and depressive, tend to be shorter-lived and can be interspersed with periods of stable mood.
  • Clinical Presentation: While cyclothymia mood shifts can disrupt daily life, they don’t typically lead to the severe functional impairments of bipolar disorder. The episodes in cyclothymia don’t meet the full criteria for manic or major depressive episodes.
  • Treatment and Management: Management for cyclothymia often involves mood stabilizers and psychotherapy. The goal is to moderate mood swings and improve overall functioning.

Management and Treatment

Managing cyclothymia effectively requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the disorder’s emotional and behavioral aspects. Early diagnosis and consistent treatment can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals with cyclothymia.


In many cases, medication is used to manage the symptoms of cyclothymia. Depending on each patient’s symptoms, they might be prescribed a combination of the following:

Mood Stabilizers

Lithium is the most commonly prescribed mood stabilizer for cyclothymia. It helps in preventing the recurrence of mood swings. Lithium is the most commonly prescribed mood stabilizer for cyclothymia. It helps in preventing the recurrence of mood swings.


Drugs like olanzapine and quetiapine can be beneficial, especially if symptoms lean towards the more severe spectrum.

Anti-anxiety Medications

Clonazepam and lorazepam can help alleviate anxiety symptoms often associated with cyclothymia.


Psychotherapy can help patients manage their symptoms, avoiding episodes and hospitalizations. The most common psychotherapies used include:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT can help individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors contributing to mood fluctuations.

Family Therapy

Educating family members about cyclothymia can provide the patient with a supportive environment, which is crucial for managing the disorder.

Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy

This therapy focuses on stabilizing daily routines and sleep patterns, which can help manage mood swings.
In addition, psychoeducation is key for family members and patients to help them to recognize triggers and implement strategies to manage symptoms better.


While cyclothymia is a chronic condition, many individuals experience periods of stability, especially with consistent treatment. Some may see their symptoms diminish over time, while others might experience an evolution of their condition into a more severe form of bipolar disorder.

Treatment adherence, even during periods of stability, is crucial. Regular therapy sessions and medication, as prescribed, can prevent the recurrence of severe episodes.

A combination of medical treatment, therapy, lifestyle adjustments, and a strong support system can enable individuals to navigate the ups and downs of the disorder and lead a balanced life.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does cyclothymic disorder look like in a person?
A person with cyclothymic disorder often showcases pronounced mood shifts. They can transition from feelings of joy or heightened energy to phases of noticeable sadness and lack of enthusiasm. These mood variations in cyclothymia are distinct and more persistent than typical mood swings, making it a unique mood disorder.
What is the difference between bipolar and cyclothymia?
Both bipolar disorder and cyclothymia are classified as mood disorders. However, the key distinction lies in the intensity of their mood episodes. Bipolar disorder is characterized by more severe mood swings, including intense manic or major depressive episodes. In contrast, cyclothymia presents milder, yet persistent, mood fluctuations that don’t reach the full criteria of manic or major depressive episodes seen in bipolar conditions.
What can trigger cyclothymia?
The precise cause of cyclothymia remains unknown. However, several factors are believed to influence its onset. Genetic predisposition can play a role, especially if mood disorders run in the family. Additionally, traumatic life events, such as personal losses or significant life changes, and prolonged periods of stress can act as triggers or exacerbate the symptoms of cyclothymia.

Related Conditions

  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Bipolar I
  • Bipolar II

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