May 28, 2019
More than 5 million American men and women — or just over 2% of the adult population — have some form of bipolar disorder, a chronic mental health condition that causes overpowering mood swings that are far more intense and disruptive than the normal highs and lows that everyone experiences from time to time.
For many people affected by bipolar disorder, symptoms fit a classic cycling pattern that involves periods of elevated mood (emotional highs) followed by depressive episodes (emotional lows).
While the exact nature, duration, and severity of these highs and lows can vary greatly from person to person, they tend to have a similar and pronounced impact on most people’s sleep patterns, energy levels, behavior, mental clarity, and judgment.
But even if the defining signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder are fairly clear cut, they aren’t necessarily drastic or even indisputably obvious, and reaching a conclusive diagnosis isn’t always a simple process. In fact, roughly half of all people who experience persistent bipolar symptoms see three professionals before they receive an accurate diagnosis.
Ultimately, however, everyone who’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder has experienced some combination of the three most prominent symptoms. Let’s explore each of them in detail.
Telltale bipolar symptoms
People with bipolar disorder experience “mood episodes,” or periods of abnormally intense emotion with clear changes in behavior. No matter what a person’s characteristic mood or behavior, these episodes mark a distinct and noticeable departure from the norm.
1. Manic episode
During a manic episode, a person with bipolar disorder demonstrates exaggerated behavior — either in the form of extreme high-spiritedness, unrelenting irritability, or super-charged energy levels — for a week or longer.
The intense feelings of elation and euphoria that often accompany a manic episode can lead to a temporarily inflated sense of self-esteem or well-being, feelings of grandiosity, and the sense that it’s possible to accomplish many things at once. The symptoms may also make the affected person more distractible and unable to sleep for days a time.
Just as a person in the midst of a manic episode may have racing thoughts or uncontrollable ideas that change rapidly, they may talk more often — and faster and louder — than usual. They’re also more likely to engage in risky behaviors they’d normally avoid, such as spending a lot of money, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, having unprotected sex, or driving recklessly.
The changes that take place during a manic episode are so pronounced that family and friends have little doubt that something’s wrong. In fact, manic symptoms are often severe enough to cause relationship dysfunction or problems at work; they may also require hospitalization.
2. Hypomanic episode
Much like a manic episode, a hypomanic episode gives rise to abnormally upbeat feelings, increased energy levels, and an enhanced sense of well-being. But whereas manic symptoms tend to be disruptive to the point of dysfunction, hypomanic symptoms are less intense and usually only last for a few days.
Because hypomanic symptoms aren’t generally out of control, they can be much harder to spot or identify as a possible mood disorder. Someone in the midst of hypomania may simply feel very good, function exceptionally well, and be highly productive. Or they may be just slightly more energized, irritable, and impulsive than normal.
3. Major depressive episode
The vast majority of people with bipolar disorder have experienced at least one major depressive episode that lasts two weeks or longer.
These incredibly challenging mood episodes typically give rise to overpowering feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness. Such feelings are often accompanied by a total loss of interest in daily life as well as once-pleasurable activities.
A major depressive episode may cause a person with bipolar disorder to:
- Sleep far too little or way too much
- Feel restless and agitated or completely fatigued
- Eat much less or much more than normal
- Have trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Experience thoughts of death or suicide
Because the symptoms brought on by a major depressive episode tend to be even more disruptive and worrisome than those that occur during a manic episode, people with bipolar disorder are more likely to seek help when they feel depressed or soon after they emerge from the episode.
Diagnosing bipolar disorder
People with bipolar I disorder generally experience manic episodes that last a week or longer. They may also (but not always) experience major depressive episodes that last at least two weeks. People with bipolar II disorder usually experience a mix of hypomanic and depressive episodes that are shorter and less severe.
Someone who experiences frequent hypomanic and depressive episodes and near-constant mood, energy, and behavioral shifts may be diagnosed with a milder form of bipolar disorder known as cyclothymia.
While bipolar disorder may be a chronic condition that persists for the course of a person’s lifetime, it’s also a highly treatable problem that can be managed effectively and kept under control.
If you or someone close to you has experienced symptoms of depression, mania, or both, our team at Advanced Psychiatry Associates can help. Call our office in Folsom, California, or use the easy online tool to make an appointment with one of our mental health experts.