Distinguishing between mental health disorders is generally more difficult than distinguishing between medical conditions, so for somebody untrained in psychology, understanding the difference between a personality disorder and a mood disorder can be challenging. Many of the symptoms have a definite overlap, but there are unique features of both personality and mood disorders that can help you understand the differences between them.
Personality disorders are characterized by fundamental differences between the individual and most other people. These differences may be related to how the individual deals with or experiences emotion, but they may also extend to differences in how they interact with others, think about problems and interpret situations. Personality disorders often occur alongside other conditions such as depression, and are also associated with substance abuse. These issues may co-occur, but they are clinically distinct from the personality disorder.
There are three basic types of personality disorders, which are characterized by clusters of symptoms. Type A personality disorders are related to the individual’s ability to relate to other people, leading that person to behave in a way that other people regard as odd. An example of this is paranoid personality disorder, where the individual is unusually distrustful and suspicious of others.
In type B personality disorders, the sufferer struggles to regulate his or her moods, often switching rapidly between feeling very down and very happy, and exhibiting similar variations in his or her view of others. An example is borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by erratic relationships, unstable moods and often self-harm.
The final type of personality disorder is type C, in which feelings of fear and anxiety dominate the individual’s existence. This leads them to become socially withdrawn, with an example being avoidant personality disorder. These individuals are often misunderstood, because it’s easy to mistake their crippling fear of rejection as a disinterest in social interaction.
Mood disorders—as the name suggests—are solely related to the individual’s relationship with emotion. Everybody experiences highs and lows of mood, but these are usually easy to manage and extremely short-lived. When these experiences become more intense and last for longer periods of time, this is when a mood disorder may be to blame. The most common and well-known mood disorder is depression, which is characterized by feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and an inability to enjoy activities that used to bring joy.
Another common example of a mood disorder is bipolar disorder, which is like depression part of the time, but is interspersed with periods of “mania.” This involves an excited, manic happiness, in which the individual feels so good that he or she will make grandiose plans for the future or even engage in financially or physically risky behaviors in search of a thrill. Additionally, mood disorders may depend on external factors, as in seasonal affective disorder. This can be thought of as depression brought on by the shorter days associated with late fall and winter.
Distinguishing Between Mood and Personality Disorders
There are often similarities between some mood and personality disorders, with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder being two examples sharing many characteristics. Both types of psychological conditions involve periods of “remission” (when the symptoms aren’t apparent), and misdiagnosis is common even among experts. There are some differences between the two conditions; for one, bipolar disorder suffers generally have more severe and long-lasting bouts of depression. This, however, is arguably the most difficult distinction to make, and in most cases the primary difference between the two types of conditions is that personality disorders are typically more ever-present. Somebody with a personality disorder is likely to have significant problems interacting with others because he or she is fundamentally different from most people, whereas with a mood disorder, a period of intense happiness or sadness is the only real departure from the norm. If you or anybody you know could have either type of condition, you should visit (or encourage your loved one to visit) a psychologist for an accurate diagnosis.