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What’s the Difference Between a Personality Disorder and a Mood Disorder?

It’s often hard to tell the difference between mental health conditions—particularly for those untrained in psychology. Talking to your doctor or another treatment specialist is the best way to get insight into what you’re facing. However, breaking down the difference between mood disorders and personality disorders can also help.

Key Characteristics of Mood Disorders

Mood disorders relate to an individual’s relationship with their emotions. Everyone has emotional highs and lows. But for most people they’re short-lived and manageable. Mood disorders cause emotional highs or lows that last for days, weeks or longer. They’re also more intense than normal.

It’s thought that mood disorders are caused more by biological factors than psychological ones. The root cause of mood disorders is an imbalance in brain chemistry, which can be hereditary. However, psychology can play a role, particularly in major depression. Life events can often trigger major depressive episodes.

Types of Mood Disorders

  • Depression – The most common mood disorder is depression, which is characterized by feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness over at least two weeks. People suffering from depression find it hard to take pleasure in activities they once enjoyed. Depression can be triggered by life events such as losing a job or the death of a loved one.
  • Bipolar disorder – With this disorder, individuals experience periods of depression and mania. During a manic episode, the person feels full of energy. They may have grandiose ideas or plans and need less sleep than normal. They’re also more likely to be impulsive and engage in risky behavior.
  • Dysthymia – This is a kind of depression that isn’t as severe as major depression. However, it tends to last much longer—two years or more.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – This type of depression is related to the change in seasons. It’s triggered by the reduction in sunlight hours in fall and winter. SAD can cause severe depression that generally lifts when the season changes.

Key Characteristics of Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are patterns of thought, belief, and behavior that differ from the norm. These patterns vary for each type of personality disorder. Personality disorders affect how a person interacts with others. This includes how they form and maintain relationships with family, friends, and intimate partners. People with these disorders tend to repeat patterns in their relationships, which are often volatile, confusing, and difficult. Some disorders cause people to avoid relationships altogether.

It’s generally thought that personality disorders are caused by events that occurred during childhood. This can include neglect, abuse or abandonment, trauma, and other impactful situations. These experiences affect personality development, relationships, and emotional regulation.

Types of Personality Disorders

There are three categories of personality disorders. Cluster A personality disorders are defined by behaviors that can fall outside of social norms:

  • Paranoid – Suspicious and distrustful of others
  • Schizoid – Distant, withdrawn and inward-focused
  • Schizotypal – Strange beliefs and behaviors (e.g. they might believe they can see the future or read minds)

Cluster B personality disorders lead to dramatic, erratic, or emotional behavior. Within each disorder the behavior is quite different:

  • Borderline (BPD) – Unstable self-image and relationships, difficulty regulating emotions
  • Narcissistic – Drawn to power and success, may lie or manipulate others to get what they want
  • Antisocial – Have little care for the rights, feelings, and safety of others
  • Histrionic – A need to be the center of attention, with dramatic behavior and frequent mood swings

Cluster C personality disorders cause patterns of thought and behavior dominated by anxiety or fear:

  • Obsessive-compulsive – Extreme perfectionism and a strong need to always be orderly and in control (not to be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is a kind of anxiety disorder)
  • Dependent – Submissive and dependent, unable to disagree with others, and often afraid of being alone
  • Avoidant – High levels of stress in everyday situations and low self-esteem

Key Differences in Mood Disorders vs. Personality Disorders

The key difference between personality and mood disorders is the symptom patterns they cause. The main feature of mood disorders is periods of emotional highs and/or lows. Some personality disorders can cause mood swings, but this isn’t the main symptom of personality disorders.

How do medical professionals diagnose these disorders, when both kinds can lead to emotional and mood problems? Usually, it’s about symptom patterns, rather than one single symptom. For instance, mood swings are a feature of both bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD). It’s the length and frequency of mood swings that distinguish the two. Mood swings tend to be more rapid and frequent in BPD. Someone with BPD may cycle between high and low moods on the same day. In bipolar disorder, manic and depressive episodes last for days or longer.

Another difference is that having a personality disorder can trigger a mood disorder, but the reverse situation doesn’t happen. This is because the foundation for a personality disorder is laid during childhood. It’s during these years that a person’s personality is formed. Once this period is over, fundamental personality changes are rare. Many people with personality disorders develop depression as adults, especially if their personality disorder is undiagnosed.

Which Disorders Are Most Often Confused?

The most frequently confused disorders are bipolar disorder and BPD. This is because both disorders lead to erratic and impulsive behavior. They both can also cause volatile and unpredictable behavior in relationships. During a manic episode, a bipolar person’s behavior can look a lot like the behavior of someone with BPD. People with BPD also have a high risk of depression, which can look very much like the depressive episodes of someone with bipolar disorder.

Another major oversight is that many people with personality disorders also have depression. In many cases, individuals are diagnosed with depression, but their doctor doesn’t realize that their depression was triggered by an underlying personality disorder. This happens most often with borderline personality disorder. It’s also relatively common with avoidant and dependent personality disorders. Without a complete diagnosis, a patient cannot receive sufficient treatment.

Treatment Options for Mood Disorders and Personality Disorders

Both mood disorders and personality disorders are best treated with a combination of therapy and medication. However, the specific types of treatment that work best depending on the individual. One defining difference is that people with mood disorders can often improve with medication alone. This isn’t the case with personality disorders. Effective personality disorder treatment also relies on therapy to help people manage their symptoms.

Mood disorder treatment is most effective when it includes both therapy and medication. The medication helps relieve depression symptoms, while therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people change the underlying beliefs and behavior that contribute to their depression. With bipolar disorder, there’s often a heavier emphasis on medication. This is because people with bipolar disorder often need lifelong medication with mood stabilizers. They can also strongly benefit from therapy to help them manage their symptoms.

For people with personality disorders, therapy is essential for symptom management. This is because personality disorders develop due to psychological responses to life events. For instance, medication can help regulate someone’s mood, but it can’t change how they form and maintain relationships. Only therapy and self-examination can do that.

Learn More from Promises Behavioral Health

Whether it’s a mood disorder or a personality disorder, getting the right—and complete—diagnosis is vital. It’s only once you’re accurately diagnosed that you’ll be able to get the treatment that’s most likely to help you. If you or someone you love is displaying symptoms of a personality or mood disorder, it’s best to seek help from a medical professional. Reach out to our admissions counselors today at 844.875.5609 to learn more about our mental health programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the road to recovery.