We all have our ups and downs, but if you experience severe changes in mood, energy, sleep and the ability to cope with daily responsibilities, you might be experiencing signs of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) is a mental health condition that causes extreme shifts in moods that alternate between “highs” (or mania) and “lows” (or depression). These manic and depressive periods vary from person to person and can last for just a few hours or days to several weeks or even months. Sometimes these periods of intense emotions are so brief and so far between that many people may not be aware that they have bipolar disorder. Sometimes these cycles are so strong and close together that it is very difficult to maintain a normal life and have normal relationships. This is a sub-variety of bipolar disorder called rapid cycling bipolar disorder.
Understanding the Difference Between Depression and Bipolar Disorder
People with bipolar disorder shift between feelings of depression and feelings of mania, with normal periods in between. Sometimes it’s easier to identify these depressive episodes because depression is more widely talked about. Although “mania” may sound like wildly unusual behavior, it’s not always that easy to spot. It can seem like high spirits, or an adventurous mood, especially to someone who doesn’t live with the person day in and day out.
The depressive phase of bipolar disorder shares many similarities to regular depression, including prolonged sadness, inability to concentrate, loss of energy, difficulty sleeping, and thoughts of suicide. People with bipolar depression, however, tend to have more unpredictable mood swings, more irritability and guilt, and more feelings of restlessness. They also tend to move and speak slowly, sleep a lot and gain weight. (Sometimes these behaviors might be made more obvious by medication side effects.)
Manic episodes are often harder to identify because many people don’t understand what the symptoms of bipolar disorder mania are. If you experience episodes of depression followed by symptoms of mania, you may actually be seeing signs of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar Sign 1: Abnormal or Excessive Elation or Energy
Mania is more than simply feeling good or euphoric. During manic episodes, people can be described as being frantic, hyperactive or over-excited. If something has upset them, they are enraged. If something has interested them, they are thrilled, excited beyond all reason. Their energy level seems highly unusual compared to that of other people.
Bipolar Sign 2: Racing Thoughts and Speech
Oftentimes a person’s thoughts and speech are so fast during manic episodes that their speech gets pressured, loud and hard to understand. These racing thoughts make it difficult to concentrate on any one thing at a time and are often broken up into fragmented tangents during speech. It is extremely hard to “keep up” with someone in a manic state—not because the listener is slow or inattentive, but because the person experiencing mania is racing along at an unsustainable speed.
Bipolar Sign 3: Grandiose Thinking
Grandiosity is a term used to describe an exaggerated sense of one’s importance, power, identity or knowledge. During a manic episode, a person may have grandiose notions, such as that they are better at something than they really are or that they can accomplish a difficult or series of tasks in a very short period of time. This can cause people with bipolar disorder to be become involved in excessive planning and start multiple activities that they never end up finishing.
Grandiose thoughts often prompt people with bipolar disorder to dream up plans that seem improbable and invest time, energy, or even money into them—despite how unlikely they seem from the outside. They might go on impulsive spending sprees, in service to their grandiose plans, or just to chase their manic feelings. Bad financial decisions and signs of poor judgment like reckless driving and drug use are also common.
Bipolar Sign 4: Decreased Need for Sleep During Manic Episodes
During a manic episode, a person will usually wake up several hours earlier than normal and feel full of energy, despite having less sleep. Sometimes the sleep disturbance is so severe that the person may go for days without sleep without feeling tired. On the other hand, during depressive episodes, the person with bipolar disorder may sleep for extended periods of time, unable to get out of bed on some days.
Bipolar Sign 5: Hypersexuality
During manic episodes, a person may become hypersexual. They may experience things such as an increased sex drive and sexual fantasies; make unusual sexual demands on their partner; make inappropriate sexual advances; have affairs; spend lots of money on porn, prostitutes, etc. In context, this is part and parcel of the grandiosity and poor judgment that typically accompanies manic episodes experienced by people with bipolar disorder.
Bipolar Sign 6: Inability to Complete Tasks
A home full of started—and incomplete—projects is a strong sign of bipolar disorder because manic periods of time trigger new projects and depressive episodes bring them crashing to a halt. Productivity is easy for people who can master the energy they find so appealing and limitless when they are in a state of hypomania.
Unfortunately, the mania never lasts. This means that people with bipolar disorder flit from project to project, making big plans that they never finish. Mania makes people with bipolar disorder very distractible and disproportionately ambitious.
Bipolar Sign 7: Work Issues
It’s probably easy to imagine how people with bipolar disorder get into trouble at work. Many symptoms of both the manic and depressive phases of the disease can make showing up for work every day and being productive difficult or impossible. Days where they can’t get out of bed, strange moods, difficulty completing tasks, and grandiosity during a manic phase all lead to work issues.
Bipolar Sign 8: Irritability
Everyone has bad moods. However, for people with bipolar disorder, the mood swings are far more intense and disturbing. They may even be able to see that they are irritable but be unable to control it. Certain people with bipolar disorder also suffer from “mixed mania,” which means they endure both manic and depressive symptoms simultaneously.
Bipolar Sign 9: Abuse of alcohol or drugs
About half of bipolar disorder sufferers also abuse substances, especially alcohol. Often these people drink or use depressants to calm themselves while they are manic; they then use alcohol or stimulants during depressive phases to improve their mood.
Bipolar Sign 10: Depression
It’s easy to forget that depression is part of bipolar disorder, but someone with this disease might seem like they are suffering from garden-variety depression—at least sometimes. However, typical antidepressants alone are often ineffective for patients with bipolar disorder, and they can even contribute to their problem, causing more rapid cycling or even a psychotic break.
The Bottom Line
If you or someone you love exhibits any of these warning signs of bipolar disorder, it’s important to seek help right away. Without a proper diagnosis and treatment, these symptoms can interfere with the ability to live a normal life. There is no shame in admitting you might be bipolar — only a chance to return to a normal life.