Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that is characterized by alternating periods of extreme high and low mood. But what are the signs and symptoms of this mood disorder?

Over 18 percent of Americans will experience some sort of mental health problem over the course of any year. Bipolar disorder is not uncommon, with over 4 percent of people in the United States living with the condition.

When not well managed, experiencing bipolar disorder can have a disruptive impact on a person's life. However, if diagnosed and properly treated, people with bipolar disorder can lead happy lives and achieve as much as anyone else.

This article explores the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder. Being more aware of bipolar disorder can help people access the treatment they need and reduce stigma around this manageable condition.

Known in the past as "manic depression," bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that affects the way people experience moods.

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Bipolar disorder can affect a person's mood and energy levels.

If bipolar disorder is left untreated, it may cause noticeable shifts in:

  • mood
  • energy levels
  • ability to perform daily tasks

The shifts in mood and energy normally range between extreme highs and lows.

For people with bipolar disorder, these alternating moods are more than what people without the condition would call "mood swings."

High and low periods for people with bipolar disorder can be quite intense. If left unchecked, these episodes may disrupt life, affecting relationships, and the ability to perform well at work.

Manic episodes

Intense good feelings and an unusually high amount of energy classify periods of highs, which are known as "manic episodes."

These episodes are more than just being happy and energetic. Manic periods may make people experiencing them feel irritable, jumpy, and more likely to take risks.

Depressive periods

During low periods, known as "depressive periods," people experience extreme sadness or hopelessness.

In a depressive period, energy and activity levels plummet. A person going through a depressive period may have trouble getting out of bed.

Some people may also experience intrusive thoughts, such as those of suicide, which can be very disturbing for the person and their loved ones.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation should speak to a doctor straight away.

There are several types of bipolar disorder. Each type of bipolar disorder shares manic and depressive periods but these periods present differently.

There are three main types of bipolar disorder:

  • Bipolar I: In Bipolar I disorder, manic periods last at least a week or are so severe they may require hospitalization to manage. Depressive periods lasting 2 weeks or longer break up the manic periods. Sometimes, episodes that have both features of manic periods and depressive periods may occur.
  • Bipolar II: In this type of bipolar disorder, people experience depressive periods with milder periods of mania, known as hypomanic episodes. Full blown manic episodes generally do not occur with bipolar II disorder.
  • Cyclothymic disorder: In cyclothymic disorder, people have experienced at least 2 years of depressive periods interspersed with hypomanic symptoms. However, the episodes of hypomanic periods and depressive periods generally do not meet the criteria to classify them as a clinical episode of mania or major depressive episode.

Bipolar disorder has many signs of symptoms. The symptoms vary based on whether or not the person is experiencing a manic or depressive state.

Manic and hypomanic symptoms

Symptoms of a manic or hypomanic episode due to bipolar disorder include three or more of the following:

  • feeling unusually jumpy or jittery
  • unusual extreme energy
  • restlessness
  • talking excessively fast
  • decreased need for sleep
  • agitation or irritability
  • racing thoughts
  • inability to focus
  • feelings of overconfidence and euphoria
  • tendencies towards reckless behavior, such as extreme spending or risk taking

Depressive symptoms

People experiencing a depressive episode have different symptoms than those experiencing a manic episode.

Symptoms of a depressive episode may experience the following:

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Symptoms of a depressive episode include low energy levels and excess worrying.
  • extreme feelings of sadness or feeling very down
  • excess worrying
  • sleep troubles (either not being able to sleep or sleeping too much)
  • low energy levels
  • decreased activity and difficulty accomplishing tasks
  • suicidal thoughts and tendencies
  • forgetfulness
  • inability to enjoy normally enjoyable activities

Sometimes people with bipolar disorder may experience symptoms of both mania and depression at the same time.

In other instances, people experiencing hypomania may have some of the symptoms of a manic episode but feel really good and not realize anything is wrong. However, friends and family may notice out of character behavior.

A doctor or mental healthcare professional can diagnose bipolar disorder. However, for some people experiencing bipolar disorder, reaching the point of diagnosis is difficult.

Having a series of high and low periods may be intense and could be disruptive. However, some people who experience this may not view it as problematic.

A willingness to accept highs and lows, and not to see this as something that needs treating, may delay people getting the help they need.

Bipolar and related illnesses

People experiencing bipolar disorder may also exhibit traits of other health problems.

If someone is experiencing other health problems as well as bipolar disorder, it may take some time for a doctor to recognize the signs of bipolar disorder. When they do, they may refer the person to a psychiatrist for further evaluation of bipolar disorder.

Similar conditions that may lead to misdiagnosis include:

  • Substance abuse: In addition to bipolar disorder, some people may also use alcohol or drugs excessively. This behavior can lead to poor performance at work or school and relationship problems. Those around the person may not realize that the behavior may be related to bipolar disorder and not a separate substance abuse issue.
  • Anxiety disorder: Psychiatrists may misdiagnose bipolar disorder as an anxiety disorder. This is because a person with bipolar disorder may tend towards excess or extreme worry that gets mistaken for an anxiety disorder. The anxiety disorder may exist separately or receive a misdiagnosis during a depressive period.
  • Schizophrenia: It is not unusual for a person experiencing an extreme period of mania or depression to experience psychosis, delusional thinking, or hallucinations. Due to these symptoms, a psychiatrist may misdiagnose bipolar disorder as schizophrenia.

Once diagnosed, bipolar disorder is very treatable and can be managed with a proper care plan.

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In conjunction with medication, talk therapy is usually recommended for managing bipolar disorder.

Management of bipolar disorder usually involves both medications and therapy. Medication for bipolar disorder includes:

Additionally, a primary care doctor or psychiatrist may recommend different kinds of therapy.

Talk therapy can help people with bipolar disorder deal with the changes in mood they experience in constructive ways that mean their behavior is not affected.

Certain lifestyle factors, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and poor stress management can exacerbate mental health conditions.

Leading a healthful lifestyle, understanding triggers, reducing exposure to them, and taking regular exercise may also help manage bipolar disorder.

During a period of intense mania or depression, a person may need to be admitted into the hospital or mental health facility for therapy. This is generally temporary and designed to help people get through through the worst of the high or low safely.

As people can experience relapses in their condition, finding long-term methods to manage bipolar disorder is important. Most doctors will recommend ongoing medicinal and talk therapy as the safest means of managing the condition.