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What is Low-Grade Depression (Persistent Depressive Disorder) and Why Is It Dangerous?

low grade depression

Depression is a term that often conjures images of overwhelming sadness and lethargy. However, there’s a subtler, yet equally debilitating form, often overlooked and misunderstood: low-grade depression. This form of depression, also known as persistent depressive disorder (PDD), dysthymia, low-level depression, or high-functioning depression, presents a unique challenge precisely because of its less apparent nature.

Understanding Low-Grade Depression

Low-grade depression is characterized by a chronic, muted state of depression. Unlike major depressive disorder (MDD), where symptoms are acute and severe, the symptoms of low-grade depression are milder but persistently woven into the fabric of a person’s daily life. This persistent depressive disorder can last for years, becoming a ‘new normal’ for many, leading them to believe that what they’re experiencing isn’t a medical problem, but just who they are.

The Danger of the ‘Functional’ Mask

One of the reasons low-grade depression is so dangerous is that it often remains untreated. Those living with dysthymia may appear to function well in their daily lives, masking the struggle they endure internally. This functioning facade can lead to a lack of recognition and treatment. It’s a condition where one may feel consistently low, struggle with self-esteem, and regularly feel like a failure, yet be able to carry on with their day-to-day responsibilities.

Symptoms of Low-Grade Depression

The symptoms of this condition can include: 

      • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns

      • Persistent fatigue

      • Negative thoughts

      • Low self-esteem

      • Restlessness

      • Inability to enjoy previously pleasurable activities 

      • Feelings of emptiness 

      • Poor Concentration 

      • and Chronic indecisiveness. 

    These symptoms, while less intense than those of major depression, are no less significant in their impact on an individual’s quality of life.

    Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) vs. Depression

    It’s crucial to distinguish between dysthymia and major depressive disorder. While both are forms of depression, they differ in their severity and duration. Major depression is characterized by more severe symptoms but is generally shorter in duration. PDD, on the other hand, is longer-lasting but with less intense symptoms. Interestingly, up to 75% of individuals with low-grade depression will experience an episode of major depression, referred to as double depression. Low-grade depression is not something to be taken lightly—in fact it can deeply impact both mental and physical health.


    persistent depressive disorder


    Chronic Low-Grade Depression Can Impact Health

    The chronic nature of low-grade depression means that it can have a long-term impact on physical health. The ongoing stress associated with low-grade depression can contribute to a weakened immune system, making an individual more susceptible to infections, injuries, and illnesses. The body’s response to long-term stress may also exacerbate chronic conditions like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. This is particularly concerning given that the symptoms of low-grade depression, such as decreased energy and motivation, can make managing these health conditions more challenging. 

    The “High-Functioning” Depression Misconception

    There’s a misconception that because someone with low-grade depression can function, they are not in need of help. This ‘high-functioning’ label is misleading and dangerous. Just because someone is getting through their day doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. It can be hard making the decision to pursue help, but the benefits can be life-changing. Everyone deserves to enjoy life. It’s important to recognize and address low-grade depression before it escalates.

    Living with PDD

    Living with dysthymia is like carrying a silent burden. Many individuals may not even be aware that what they’re experiencing is a form of depression. This lack of awareness can lead to years of untreated suffering, with significant implications for the individual’s long-term mental and physical health.

    Treatment Options

    Treatment for low-grade depression often includes a combination of medication, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT—learn more about how CBT works here). St. John’s Wort, a widely available supplement, has been reported to be helpful in cases of mild to moderate PDD, but it’s important you talk to a doctor before taking any supplement. These treatments can be effective in managing the symptoms of low-grade depression. However, each person’s journey with dysthymia is unique, and treatment plans should be tailored to their individual needs. If you’re ready to get help with low-grade depression in West Michigan, reach out to our counselors today.

    Why It’s Important to Seek Help

    The insidious nature of low-grade depression makes it essential for those experiencing it to seek help. The chronic, low-level nature of this condition means it can easily go unnoticed and untreated, leading to a gradual, but marked decline in quality of life. Early intervention and treatment can significantly improve outcomes.

    Finding A New Normal

    Low-grade depression, or dysthymia, is a subtle but pervasive form of depression that can have a profound impact on an individual’s life. Despite its chronic nature, it often remains underdiagnosed and untreated due to the functional ability of those who suffer from it. Understanding and recognizing the symptoms of low-grade depression is the first step towards seeking and receiving the help needed. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to remember that help is available and that with the right support, it’s possible to lead a fulfilling life even while managing this condition.


    Meet Robb Kornoelje, relationship counselor, owner of the Truism Center, and creator of the “30-Day Relationship Challenge.” This 30-day email course offers guidance to identify behaviors causing trouble, find ease with emotions, and enhance self-awareness. With a focus on stress-free communication, the challenge encourages a stronger connection with others, nurturing compassion, and fostering forgiveness. Join Robb on this journey to improve the fabric of your relationships—one day at a time.