By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Dysphoria – the feeling bad problem.
Sometimes you just feel bad. Many times, people feel bad but can’t describe what that feeling is. Ask someone at random how they feel, and the most common answers will be, good, bad, or angry. Some of this stems from the bad reputation feelings have received. Many people go to great lengths to avoid any negative feelings. When you tried to avoid negative feelings, it’s no surprise that when you do feel bad, you have difficulty identifying that feeling and giving it a name.
You may have been labeled dysphoric without your knowledge.
If you have been to see a professional because you were “feeling bad” but you didn’t know the specific reason, the professional may have written down somewhere in your file that you were “dysphoric.”
When you’re under stress, the chemicals your nervous system produces are felt widely throughout your body. Panic attacks can feel like a heart attack. Depression can leave you exhausted, lacking the energy to get out of bed. A high percentage of clients who experienced these symptoms go to the medical doctor first. Which is not a bad idea. You need to rule out a medical issue. Sitting and talking to your counselor during your heart attack could be fatal.
Once your medical Doctor has ruled out immediate, life-threatening illnesses, you may be referred to see a psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist. Seeing a counselor does not mean you are crazy. What it tells us is that your nervous system has been sending out chemicals alerting the body to an emotional crisis. The result is an episode of dysphoria.
Is dysphoria a mental illness?
Dysphoria is a term that goes back to the days of Freud. Back then someone was either diagnosed with psychosis, that meant you were crazy, or neuroses which largely meant you were struggling with the problems of living. I have seen the term dysphoria in a lot of the older literature from the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis. Today professionals use the DSM-5 to diagnose mental illness. The DSM lists about 400 different varieties of mental illnesses. Dysphoria can be an underlying symptom of many of these illnesses, but it is not one specific disorder.
No client has ever told me they felt dysphoric. But I’ve heard that they “feel bad” plenty of times. I have seen the word dysphoria on assessment forms several times, usually as a checkbox for a feeling the client might be having. As my students have heard, I think of a good assessment as more than just checking the boxes and filling out a form.
To help someone who is “feeling bad” the counselor needs to examine that feeling, identify the specific feelings involved and ideally match them up with a specific mental, emotional, or behavioral problem.
What exactly is dysphoria?
OxfordDictionaries defines dysphoria as “a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life. The opposite of euphoria.” Some words are easiest to define by saying that they are the opposite of something else. Unfortunately defining dysphoria by saying it’s the opposite of euphoria is not much help.
The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, from 1889, gets us closer to a useful definition. I think this is an important point. When you are reading books which were written a long time ago, Freud and Jung, even the psychoanalysts who wrote before the DSM Four, it’s important to ask what the words meant to them. The English language has always been in a state of change.
The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia defines dysphoria as; pain hard to be borne, anguish, impatience under affliction, a state of dissatisfaction, restlessness, fidgeting, or inquietude.
In Psychology dysphoria generally means one of 3 things.
Martin Seligman in his book What You Can Change and What You Can’t begins with the idea of dysphoria and then breaks it down into three specific negative emotions. I would highly recommend this book by the way. One point he makes here is that to date there is no medication which cures any mental illness. At the time he wrote this book; he listed 14 mental illnesses that could be effectively treated, cured, or greatly reduced, using specific forms of talk therapy. I’m inclined to think in the years since he wrote this book other therapies have proven effective for additional mental and emotional disorders.
Anxiety can look like a physical illness.
Anxiety disorders are the “great pretenders.” During episodes of anxiety, the thoughts in the brain mobilize the body for flight or flight activities. Anxiety reduces a lot of physical symptoms in your body and is frequently mistaken for a physical illness.
Professionals split anxiety disorders into a number of specific types. Most are temporarily manageable with medication, but when the medication wears off the anxiety returns worse than before. Therapy of several varieties, coupled with relaxation techniques and life skills training can greatly reduce the levels of anxiety.
Recently, trauma and stressor-related disorders such as PTSD were separated from the Anxiety Disorders. These problems have added symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks. There are treatments for these disorders, but those treatments are very different from the ones used for anxiety.
Depression comes in many varieties.
Professionals categorize depression more by the physical symptoms you experience than by the cause of the depression. Some types of depression have a specific cause, and others don’t. Many of the symptoms of depression look like those of physical illness. Changes in appetite, eating either too much or too little, can all be part of depression. Changes in sleep are also an element of depression. Some people, when depressed, experience significant fatigue. Depressed people may take to bed and feel too tired to get up. Underlying depression is the loss of the ability to experience happiness. Some people can feel a few bursts of pleasure, but the temporary pleasant sensation quickly fades.
Anger and irritability are often components of dysphoria.
When someone doesn’t feel well, they are out of sorts, they become irritable and push others away. Some people feel “bad” and experience a lot of anger. Neither anger nor irritability is considered a specific mental illness, but they may be symptoms of several mental health challenges.
It would be wonderful if there were specific blood tests or x-rays that would determine that the physical symptoms you have are the result of dysphoria and could be identified as one specific mental illness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. First, you need to see a medical Doctor to rule out physical illness. Next, you would see a counselor who would talk to you about your symptoms. Based on the number and severity of symptoms you would get a specific diagnosis.
Treatment should be tailored to you and your particular symptoms. Therapy is not something the counselor should do to you. Therapy is something the counselor and client do together. As a result of counseling, you should learn skills and new ways of thinking that will help you manage dysphoric feelings and learn to increase the number of positive feelings you experience.
If you have been feeling bad, one or more of the dysphoric feelings, please consider getting help.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller.
David Joel Miller MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC.) Mr. Miller provides supervision for beginning counselors and therapists and teaches at the local college in the Substance Abuse Counseling program.
Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!
Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.
Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.
For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.