Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric condition that causes changes in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. Cyclothymia is a milder version of bipolar disorder that involves less severe symptoms.

Bipolar disorder involves episodes of mania as well as episodes of depression. Mania relates to episodes of an unusually elevated mood. The mood changes that occur in people with bipolar disorder can be extreme. Cyclothymia also involves episodes of mood changes. However, they are not generally severe enough to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Read on to learn more about the differences and similarities between bipolar disorder and cyclothymia, symptoms, treatment, and living with either of these conditions.

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Bipolar disorder affects around 2.8% of people in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The lifetime prevalence of cyclothymia is approximately 0.4–1% of the population.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) categorizes cyclothymia or cyclothymic disorder as a type of bipolar disorder. However, healthcare professionals typically consider it separate from other mood disorders.

The symptoms of cyclothymia overlap with various conditions. Due to the symptom and diagnostic criteria overlapping with other conditions, cyclothymia is difficult to diagnose and may receive a misdiagnosis.

The American Psychiatric Association describes cyclothymia as a milder version of bipolar disorder. It states that cyclothymia involves symptoms of hypomania and depression that are frequent. It also says that people with cyclothymia experience similar mood changes, but the symptoms are not as severe as bipolar I or II disorder.

Learn about cyclothymic disorder.

There are three main types of bipolar disorder, including cyclothymia. The three types are as follows:

  • Bipolar I disorder: This type typically has manic episodes that last at least 7 days or symptoms of mania that are severe enough to require hospitalization. These symptoms generally occur most of the day, almost daily, during this time period. Usually, people with bipolar I disorder also experience separate periods of depressive symptoms that last at least 2 weeks.
  • Bipolar II disorder: This type involves periods of hypomanic and depressive episodes. Hypomania typically has similar symptoms to mania, but they are less severe. Hypomania typically lasts at least 4 days.
  • Cyclothymia or cyclothymic disorder: This type involves recurrent hypomanic and depressive symptoms that are not severe enough to be considered episodes of hypomania or depression.

If symptoms do not meet the criteria for the above types, healthcare professionals may diagnose another specified or unspecified bipolar disorder.

Read more about the types of bipolar disorder.

Cyclothymia involves symptoms of hypomania and depression. For a diagnosis of cyclothymia, the symptoms must meet the following criteria:

  • Over 2 years, a person experiences periods of hypomanic and depressive symptoms that are not severe enough to be considered episodes.
  • A person experiences symptoms on more days than not.
  • Neutral periods with no symptoms do not last more than 2 months at a time.
  • The symptoms have a significant effect on a person’s life.
  • The symptoms are not the result of another psychiatric or medical condition.

Bipolar disorder involves periods of manic episodes as well as separate periods of depressive episodes. Some people may also experience times of neutral moods.

Symptoms of mania include:

  • feeling elated, “up,” or irritable and touchy
  • feeling jumpy or wired
  • feeling more active than usual
  • having racing thoughts
  • having a decreased need for sleep
  • talking fast about different subjects
  • having an excessive appetite for food, sex, or other pleasurable activities
  • feeling as though it is possible to do many things at once and not get tired
  • feeling unusually powerful, important, or talented

Hypomania involves many of these same symptoms. However, they are not severe enough or do not last long enough to be considered mania or manic episodes.

Symptoms of depressive episodes include:

  • feeling down, sad, or anxious
  • feeling restless or slowed down
  • having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • having sleep issues, such as difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early, or sleeping too much
  • talking slowly or experiencing forgetfulness
  • feeling unable to do even simple things
  • feeling hopeless or worthless
  • thinking about death or suicide

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 it’s safe to do so.

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.

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Read more about the differences between hypomania and mania.

The most common treatment for any type of bipolar disorder is a combination of psychotherapy and medications. Medications for bipolar disorder generally include mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.

People with cyclothymia may find that psychotherapy can help them cope with the stress mood swings can cause. They may also find it useful to keep a mood journal to help them identify and observe patterns in their mood changes. Those with cyclothymia may find that they start and stop treatment over time.

Experts do not currently know how many people with cyclothymia will go on to develop more severe types of bipolar disorder. Some people with the condition may experience more severe mood changes over time and an increase in manic and depressive symptoms. Others, however, may find the symptoms of cyclothymia remain largely the same. They will generally require lifelong treatment and management.

Tips to help live with bipolar disorder include:

  • Follow the treatment plan created with a mental health professional.
  • Keep all appointments with a mental health or healthcare professional.
  • Take all medications as directed.
  • Try to keep a routine for eating, sleeping, and exercising as much as possible.
    • Get regular physical activity, such as swimming, jogging, or walking, to help promote better sleep, improve overall health, and help with depressive symptoms.
  • Be patient and remember that improvement takes time.
  • Seek social support.

Read about natural ways to help manage bipolar disorder.

The following are some questions people frequently ask about cyclothymia and bipolar disorder.

How often does cyclothymia develop into bipolar disorder?

The number of people with cyclothymia who will develop a more severe type of bipolar disorder is unknown.

How long do cyclothymia episodes last?

Periods of neutral or stable moods do not generally last longer than 2 months in people with cyclothymia.

What are the triggers of cyclothymia?

The exact cause of cyclothymia is not known. However, there is most likely a genetic factor involved. Some people may also find that a traumatic experience or event may trigger symptoms of cyclothymia. This may include severe illness or long periods of stress.

Cyclothymia is considered a less severe type of bipolar disorder. It typically involves periods of symptoms of hypomania and depression. However, the symptoms are never severe enough to meet the criteria for episodes of hypomania or depression.

Treatment for cyclothymia is similar to other types of bipolar disorder. It typically involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Some people may experience an increase in the severity of their symptoms and develop a more severe type of bipolar disorder. However, other people may find their symptoms stay largely the same. They will generally require lifelong treatment and management of their symptoms, though.

A person can speak with a mental health or healthcare professional if they are experiencing symptoms of mania, hypomania, or depression.