What is Dysphoria?

Published on: 08 May 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
guy sitting on bench with sunlight shining on face

Updated 08/17/23

Words like funk, gloom, and melancholy can describe how we feel when we are not particularly happy but can’t quite put our finger on the reason. As it turns out, there’s a clinical term for this feeling. It is called dysphoria.

So what is dysphoria exactly? Talkspace Senior Therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP, defined dysphoria as “a state of generalized unhappiness, agitation, displeasure, or frustration.” Dysphoria can either be attached to a health disorder, acting as a symptom of a deeper condition, or it can take place on its own, since moods are not always a result of a clinical condition.

Typically marked by psychological distress, unease, and exasperation, it’s no wonder that the word dysphoria comes from Greek for “hard to bear.”

Signs and Symptoms of Dysphoria

Dysphoria can be a frustrating state of being, to say the least. You might wonder when, or even if, you’ll ever experience happy feelings again. Some of the most common symptoms of dysphoria include:

  • Sadness
  • Apathy
  • Worry
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of satisfaction with activities or life in general

None of these symptoms sound particularly pleasant, but they can vary from person to person depending on the type of dysphoria they’re experiencing.

Causes of Dysphoria

Dysphoria isn’t a mental health condition, though it could be a sign that there is an underlying mental or physical condition. “The list of illnesses in which dysphoria is a side effect is extensive,” Catchings explained, but the most common symptoms tend to be:

Understanding Gender Dysphoria

Another term you’ve likely heard before is “gender dysphoria,” which according to Catchings is “a condition where an individual experiences severe distress because there is a difference between their gender identity and their biological sex.” Gender dysphoria is not an illness, she explained, adding “It can be better described as a condition where distress is often present in individuals whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth.”

Scientists are still trying to identify the possible causes for gender dysphoria. One hypothesis suggests gender dysphoria is a biological issue. Another theory claims that one cause of gender dysphoria involves the physical environment in which a person grew up.

Gender dysphoria also encompasses several elements, including body dysmorphia, social dysphoria, and emotional distress. Body dysmorphia involves a deep dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance, particularly related to their secondary sex characteristics that align with their assigned gender. Social dysphoria, on the other hand, stems from discomfort or anxiety when confronted with societal gender norms that may not align with their preferred gender expression.

It’s crucial to differentiate gender dysphoria from sexual orientation, as the former revolves around one’s internal sense of gender identity rather than their sexual attraction to others. Understanding and respecting this distinction is essential in providing effective therapy and support to transgender individuals.

Catchings emphasizes that dysphoria is a highly individualized condition. “Dysphoria is a symptom, not a stand-alone diagnosis,” Catching explained. “Therefore, the behaviors and reactions experienced may vary from person to person. Some of the reactions observed are agitation, frustration, anger, and/or disappointment.”

Taking the example of gender dysphoria, Catchings explained that an individual can feel anything from unease to severe distress. “Hence, the person can act defiantly, rude, or even violent,” she added.

Treating Gender Dysphoria

Treating gender dysphoria requires a comprehensive and compassionate approach to support the well-being of transgender individuals. The first step is to acknowledge and validate their gender identity, providing a safe and understanding environment where they can express themselves freely. Mental health professionals play a crucial role in this process, offering therapy and counseling to address the psychological distress associated with gender dysphoria. Gender-affirming care, which may involve hormone therapy or gender affirmation surgery, can help align the individual’s physical appearance with their preferred gender, reducing body dysmorphia and enhancing their gender euphoria. 

It is essential to respect the person’s preferred gender and expression while recognizing the impact of societal gender norms on their social dysphoria. By taking a person-centered approach and offering support tailored to each individual’s unique needs, we can help alleviate the significant distress caused by gender dysphoria and foster a more inclusive society for all transgender people.

Treating General Dysphoria

Although to some, dysphoria might simply sound like a mild form of dissatisfaction or unhappiness, it can substantially and significantly affect people’s lives. For instance, hobbies or ventures that were once fun and exciting may completely lose their luster.

“It is possible for the individual to lose interest in previously-pleasurable activities, mainly when the person is constantly having to deal with the distress and negative feelings that the dysphoria causes him/her/them,” Catchings explained.

When it comes to seeking out anything and everything that could give them even a tiny glimmer of happiness in the midst of dysphoria, the personality of the individual matters greatly. “Some might be able to seek happiness, but the majority describe the feeling of dysphoria as a wave that takes them into a dark place, making it very difficult to get out of there,” Catchings said.

Even though dysphoria may feel as if it casts a cloud over you, you can take comfort in knowing that there are ways to deal with it, including:

  • Getting matched with a licensed therapist
  • Keeping a journal to write down your feelings
  • Using a calendar or app to track mood changes
  • Spending time with people who are supportive and validate your needs and preferences
  • Starting a new hobby that keeps your interest
  • Trying to keep busy with things that grab your attention and benefit your mind and body

Also keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy might be beneficial to reduce feelings of dysphoria. “If we learn to change the way we think, we can change the way we feel,” Catchings noted.

Getting Help for Those You Love With Dysphoria

Catchings shared important things to keep in mind if you suspect that you or someone you love is dealing with dysphoria: :

  • Not all transgender people suffer from gender dysphoria.
  • “Dysphoria is not an illness, but a symptom.
  • Gender dysphoria is not the only type of dysphoria. Social dysphoria is also common.

Last but not least, you should always remember that, if you’re struggling with dysphoria, you are not alone. Many others experience dysphoria, and there are always professionals who can help you navigate those unpredictable mood changes, challenging situations, and the difficulties associated.

None of us are immune to experiencing feelings of restlessness, discontent, frustration, and outright anger. If you’ve been facing these emotions for a prolonged amount of time, it’s likely worthwhile to sit down with your doctor to explore potential health conditions that may cause these feelings, which could be more than just a bad mood. You deserve to know why you’re feeling this way, and a medical expert could help you uncover the root of your dysphoria and provide a more definitive diagnosis.

How to Get Additional Help

If you feel that you’re struggling with dysphoria or a related health condition and you’re ready to feel better — even happy — again, you can speak to a licensed online therapist who can provide a personalized course of treatment.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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