Bipolar disorder causes significant and sustained fluctuations in mood. This differs from the fleeting mood swings that many people experience from time to time.

Mood swings are very common and may happen in response to daily stress, hormonal changes, or lack of sleep. They are usually short-term, lasting less than a day.

In contrast, bipolar mood episodes can last 1–2 weeks and may affect a person’s decision making or judgment. People may experience euphoria, depression, or a combination.

This article explores the distinction between bipolar disorder versus mood swings, covering bipolar symptoms, diagnosis, and when to seek help.

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Bipolar disorder and mood swings both involve mood changes, but they are distinct. The difference lies in their intensity, duration, and impact on daily life.

In bipolar disorder, mood episodes are pronounced and persistent, lasting up to 1–2 weeks at a time. They can significantly affect the person’s life, including their relationships, career, and finances.

Bipolar disorder can cause manic episodes, depressive episodes, or “mixed” episodes comprising both manic and depressive symptoms.

During manic episodes, individuals experience heightened mood, increased energy, and a reduced need for sleep. They may engage in risky or impulsive behavior and have racing thoughts.

Depressive episodes cause overwhelming sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities a person usually enjoys. Individuals may experience changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.

In comparison, mood swings are typically short-lived, lasting less than a day, and may result from specific triggers. They do not disrupt the person’s life and make it difficult for them to maintain relationships.

There are several types of bipolar disorder, each with different symptoms.

Bipolar I disorder

Individuals with bipolar I disorder experience manic episodes lasting at least 1 week that can lead to severe disruptions in daily life. They are followed by depressive episodes lasting 2 weeks or more.

Mania symptoms can include:

  • increased energy
  • high spirits
  • irritability
  • decreased need for sleep
  • faster speech
  • racing thoughts
  • increased activity
  • risky behavior

Manic symptoms are often severe enough that the person requires hospitalization to stay safe. However, people may also experience hypomania episodes with less severe symptoms.

Major depressive episodes follow mania. These periods of at least 2 weeks in duration involve the following symptoms:

  • extreme sadness or despair
  • loss of interest in life
  • feelings of guilt
  • fatigue
  • increased or decreased sleep
  • increased or decreased appetite
  • slowed speech or movement
  • restlessness
  • issues with concentration
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Bipolar II disorder

People with bipolar II disorder do not experience mania. They have hypomanic episodes that are less severe, and depressive episodes. Hypomania may not significantly affect their life, but it can lead to increased productivity and impulsivity.

Cyclothymic disorder

This milder bipolar subtype involves chronic mood instability. People with cyclothymic disorder have frequent periods of hypomania and depression that do not meet the criteria for episodes.

To receive this diagnosis, symptoms must persist for at least 2 years, with mood swings affecting the person at least half the time and not stopping for more than 2 months.

Mood swings involve temporary shifts in mood. They may cause any type of emotion, such as:

  • irritability
  • frustration
  • sadness
  • excitement
  • nervousness
  • anxiety

Mood swings may occur seemingly at random, or in response to a specific trigger.

Many factors can induce changes in mood, such as:

  • stress
  • hormonal fluctuations, such as those that occur before a period or in perimenopause
  • relationship issues
  • financial worries
  • daily challenges

These factors can also affect mood in people with bipolar disorder, but the factors that make their mood shifts so much more significant likely lie in a person’s genetics, brain chemistry, and brain activity.

While stress can exacerbate symptoms, bipolar disorder is primarily rooted in underlying brain chemistry and genetics.

Diagnosing bipolar disorder involves a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation, which may include a review of symptoms, medical history, and family history.

Specific diagnostic criteria, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), help doctors differentiate bipolar disorder from other mood disorders.

Mood swings, on the other hand, do not require a formal diagnosis, as they are a common and often transient response to everyday life events.

If a person experiences significant shifts in mood and they are not sure why, there could be other explanations aside from bipolar disorder.

The list below is not comprehensive. If a person has this symptom, they should speak with a doctor.

Other mental health conditions

Many mental health conditions cause changes in mood that may seem sudden to others, but that do have causes. For example, a person with a phobia may experience sudden fear on seeing something they are afraid of.

People with post-traumatic stress disorder may also experience sudden changes in mood if they encounter a trigger. They may or may not understand why this is happening.

Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder is a condition that can cause irritability and anger in children and adolescents.

Hormonal changes

Premenstrual syndrome is a common cause of mood swings in females. A more severe form known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder can cause more pronounced mood swings for longer periods of time.

Pregnancy, postpartum depression, and perimenopause are other potential causes.

Nutritional imbalances

Some nutrient deficiencies can cause mood shifts or a low mood. These include vitamin C deficiency and iron deficiency.

Drugs

The use of alcohol or drugs can alter mood. Certain medications may also cause mood swings as a side effect.

If a person experiences frequent and intense mood swings that interfere with daily life, they should consult a doctor or mental health professional.

Any thoughts of self-harm or suicide require immediate professional intervention. A person should contact a crisis hotline or seek emergency medical care.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

Mood swings are temporary and often arise as reactions to life events. In contrast, bipolar disorder causes distinct manic or depressive episodes that significantly impact daily life and may last 1–2 weeks.

While mood swings may not require treatment in mild cases, bipolar disorder requires professional evaluation and treatment. Seeking help early can lead to effective management and improved mental well-being.

If a person is unsure what could be causing their mood changes, they should speak with a health professional, particularly if these are severe, frequent, or long-lasting.