When a mood swing signals trouble

A little bit of moodiness now and then is normal for everyone. But sometimes the onset of irritability, sadness, or apathy can be a sign of a serious condition, reports the September 2014 Harvard Health Letter.

"Mood-related symptoms can come and go in response to everyday stresses. If they occur for long periods, cause significant distress, or interfere with daily functioning, it's an indication to seek help," says Dr. Nancy Donovan, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Mood and stress are regulated by a number of systems that include brain structures, nerve networks, and chemical neurotransmitters. Damage to any of these can show up as a change in mood. Mood changes can reflect a psychiatric disorder. Sadness, irritability, anxiety, and a loss of interest and pleasure can be signs of depression. Sometimes a mood change stems from a disease or disorder such as thyroid disease or dementia. "In our neuropsychiatry clinic at Brigham and Women's Hospital, patients with dementia frequently come for treatment of apathy, depression, anxiety, and other behavioral changes," says Dr. Donovan.

Mood can change because of a sleep disorder. Too little restful sleep can lead to irritability and anxiety. Or mood symptoms may be a medication side effect. For example, the steroid medication prednisone can cause nervousness or mood swings.

The take-home message is that sudden or unexplained changes in mood shouldn't be ignored. "Don't hesitate to talk to a doctor and go for an evaluation, because effective treatments are available for mood symptoms and their causes," says Dr. Donovan.

Read the full-length article: "Is that mood change a sign of something more serious?"