What is an affective disorder?

An affective disorder, also known as a mood disorder, is any mental condition whose main symptom is uncontrollable mood swings. There are a variety of affective disorders and they are generally classified by the prevalence of the two main ends of the mood spectrum: mania and depression. Mania is a state of increased energy with feelings of euphoria and impulsiveness, while depression is a lack of energy with feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Affective disorders can be primarily mania or depression, or an abrupt switch between the two.

One of the most common types of affective disorder is manic-depressive illness, more commonly called bipolar disorder. The disorder causes a major change in mood, with manic episodes, which make someone feel elated and invincible. Manic episodes can be dangerous because they can make a person more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as unsafe sexual promiscuity or reckless driving. After the manic episode ends, the person usually goes through a depressive episode, in which they feel worthless, shameful, or even suicidal. The duration of the episodes and the amount of time between shifts depends on the person, but they usually last about two weeks.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a temporary affective disorder that is directly related to changes in the weather. A person with SAD usually becomes inexplicably fatigued or restless when the weather gets colder or darker, such as during the transition to fall or winter. Rare cases can occur when a person experiences symptoms when the weather becomes milder or warmer instead of darker. SAD usually goes away without treatment once the weather returns to the person's preferred state.

Affective disorders can occur simultaneously with other mental disorders. Schizoaffective disorder is an affective disorder that occurs in people with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that causes delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations. If a person has schizoaffective disorder, he or she will also go through periods of mania, depression, or a combination of the two. To be classified as having schizoaffective disorder, a schizophrenic must retain their symptoms of schizophrenia while also experiencing regular intervals of mood swings.

Although affective disorders usually cannot be cured, they can often be treated to prevent symptoms from interfering with a person's daily life. Mood-stabilizing medications, such as lithium, valproate, or carbamazepine, are often prescribed to prevent chemical imbalances in the brain that contribute to mood swings. Therapy can also be implemented to help people with the disorders figure out what factors, such as stress or substance use, trigger their episodes and how to deal with triggers safely and effectively.

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