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Moody or Mood Disorder? Key Differences We Need to Know

March 02 2020 - by Denise Dumas-Koylass, Clinical Psychologist and CLP Alumna

We may consider certain colleagues or relatives to be, what we commonly refer to as, “moody” and we may have learned over the years to just wait until they appear to be in a more approachable state before we choose to interact with them.  Such individuals may be considered to be peculiar or idiosyncratic and we learn how to deal with them.  However, there are other persons whose moods and behaviours may change erratically and for no clear reason and these fluctuations in moods may negatively affect their ability to cope with the demands of everyday living.

For instance, when I acted as the Executive Officer of a public service organization, I remember having to treat regularly with a young woman who would display intense irritability on some days and then appear to be the most cheerful and supportive employee on other days.  These fluctuations in her moods used to have a negative impact on her supervisor and coworkers as her productivity as a Typist as well as her interactions with her colleagues would vary from day to day depending on her overall mood. 

So, when does “moodiness” become an issue?  When should persons be encouraged to seek professional help to cope with their fluctuating states of being?

The Oxford Dictionary defines “mood” as a “temporary state of mind or feeling” and a moody person as one who is “given to unpredictable changes of mood”. Moods and emotions are of course related.  However, research indicates that there are significant factors that differentiate moods from emotions.  Essentially, as human beings, we experience six basic emotions: (i) fear, (ii) anger, (iii) disgust, (iv) sadness, (v) joy or (vi) happiness and interest (Ekman and Davidson, 1994: cited in Reeve, 2009) in response to a specific person, event or thing (whether in the past, present or future). Emotions influence the way we behave.  On the other hand, moods are general, rather than specific, states of being (Reeve, 2009) that can develop in response to nothing specific or everything (e.g. the state of the world).  Moods, which are either positive or negative, have been found to influence the way we think and what we pay attention to.  It is also very important to note that while emotions can last for just minutes, moods can last for minutes, hours or days.

According to the Mayo Clinic, we may be diagnosed as having a mood disorder when our mood or general emotional state is distorted or inconsistent with our circumstances and when they negatively impact our ability to function in our day to day life.  For example, we may find ourselves feeling extremely sad, empty or irritable (depressed), or we may have periods of depression alternating with being excessively happy (mania) which hamper our ability to cope. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, also referred to as the DSM-5, helps mental health professionals assess whether persons are suffering from the effects of a mood disorder.  Some examples of mood disorders which are outlined in the DSM-5 are Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia, Bipolar I, Bipolar II and Cyclothymia.

As I review the research findings, it is evident that in distinguishing between a personwho is occasionally moody or one with a possible mood disorder, it is important to consider the intensity of the emotions being experienced, the duration of the moods, (which could be minutes, hours, days or weeks), and the negative impact of these states of being on the person’s ability to cope with life’s typical stressors. 

However, there is hope.  Persons diagnosed with mood disorders do benefit from attending counselling sessions with a mental health professional.  Some individuals also benefit from taking medications to help regulate possible chemical imbalances in the brain.

On a personal note, with respect to the Typist who worked in the Government Agency, I encouraged her to attend sessions with our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) Service Provider.  I believe that it is very important for every organization to establish an EAP designed to provide psychological support to employees who may be struggling to manage for a range of reasons in an increasingly challenging and demanding environment.

We would love to get your feedback on this topic. Let us know your experience in addressing these and similar issues in your workplace.


Denise Dumas-Koylass is a Clinical Psychologist, Coach and Consultant committed to facilitating the transformation of individuals and organizations.