If you hear the way people throw the word around in casual conversation, you might think that "bipolar" just means being someone who experiences some pretty typical mood swings ("My mom was so mad at me last week, but now she's acting nice! She's acting bipolar"). But bipolar disorder is a real mental illness — one that impacts 5.7 million American adults every year, according to the International Bipolar Foundation. And when people with bipolar disorder ignore the signs and forgo treatment — either due to fear of stigma, or simply because they don't know that they have it — the disorder can make their lives incredibly hard.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder (an umbrella term that covers subtypes like bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder) is "a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks." This is typically manifested in what are called "mood episodes" — periods of time where a person with bipolar disorder's actions, thoughts, and mood (as well as sleep and energy patterns) are different than usual. There are two major categories of mood episodes: manic episodes, which are typified by an overly energetic mood and behavior like extreme restlessness, forgoing sleep, and impulsive behavior; and depressive episodes, which are typified by a feeling of intense sadness, lack of interest in formerly-enjoyed hobbies or activities, exhaustion, changes to eating and sleeping patterns, and sometimes, suicidal ideation.
Contrary to popular belief, not all people with bipolar disorders experience severe manic or depressive episodes — some people experience a less-severe version of a manic episode called "hypomania," which may simply involve feeling very good and being highly productive; other also experience something called a "mixed state," which combines elements of both manic and depressive episodes. People experiencing especially severe manic or depressive episodes can also sometimes begin to hallucinate.
But while this might all sound like an unmistakable set of symptoms, the facts are that many people with bipolar disorder not only haven't been diagnosed, but might not even be aware that they're dealing with a mental health issue. The six symptoms below can be signs you might have bipolar disorder — so if they sound familiar to you, consider getting in touch with your general practitioner or psychiatrist.
1. You Often Feel Overly Energetic, Confident & Jumpy For No Reason
We all sometimes feel good for no reason. A manic episode is not that; according to HealthLine, it's a period of extremely elevated mood, one that can unfortunately cause significant damage to the life of the person dealing with it. But despite this, manic episodes — especially the very mild ones known as "hypomanic episodes" — are not always instantly recognizable as a mental health problem. People experiencing symptoms of a manic or hypomanic episode, such as feeling far more confident than usual, or experiencing that their "need" for sleep seems to have lessened significantly, may feel great, and be more interested in prolonging the feeling than diagnosing it as a mental health disorder. Many people undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder describe having enjoyed their manic episodes, and if you experience them, they may not feel like a problem.
So while no one is saying feeling extra energetic or good about yourself is a problem, if you've noticed that you experience extreme "good moods" that come on strong, are accompanied by changes to sleep patterns or appetite and a tendency to begin making decisions that you would not otherwise make, and last for a week or longer, it might be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional.
2. You Go Through Phases Of Acting Out & Spending Money Extremely Impulsively
While extra energy and confidence obviously sound appealing, people in manic states can also be impulsive, jumpy, easily irritable, and more likely to engage in risky behavior without assessing what could go wrong. This can apply to high-risk physical activities (like driving too fast or unsafely), engaging in risky sexual activities, or even spending money that you don't have. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and author of An Unquiet Mind, a memoir about her experiences with bipolar disorder, described making impulsive purchases that totaled over $30,000 over the course of two major manic episodes. After these episodes, Jamison described dealing with the financial aftermath: "you find your credit is decimated, your mortification complete: mania is not a luxury one can easily afford."
And know that you can be experiencing manic episodes even if you don't feel happy during them — according to Thomas E. Smith, MD, a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, some people in a manic episode may experience the increased energy and lack of need for sleep, but also feel edgy, irritable, afraid, and out of control.
3. You Experience Major Mood Shifts After Missing Sleep
Again, no one feels good after a night or two of bad sleep. But for many people with bipolar disorder, poor sleep can sometimes "trigger" a mood episode, according to psychiatrist Jeffrey Bennett, MD, on Everyday Health. While developing new or unusual sleeping patterns is a well-known mood episode symptom, Bennett says that failing to get enough sleep can sometimes lead people with bipolar disorder to experience a mood swing or mood episode. So if poor sleep seems to have an intense impact on you, causing you to have a major mood change that lasts, it is probably worth discussing with your doctor.
If you think you might have a bipolar disorder, it's also worth keeping track of your sleep habits in general; sudden increases or decreases in the amount you're regularly sleeping can be a sign of a mood episode.
4. You Often Feel Very Energetic & Very Depressed At The Same Time
People with bipolar disorder who are suffering from depressive episodes may not seem to be going through anything that different from people dealing with unipolar depression — they are likely experiencing the same exhaustion, lowered mood, and changes to sleep and appetite. However, people with bipolar disorder can also experience what is called a "mixed state" — an episode that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, may make a sufferer "feel very agitated, have trouble sleeping, experience major changes in appetite, and have suicidal thoughts. People in a mixed state may feel very sad or hopeless while at the same time feel extremely energized." If you've had an experience that sounds like this, tell your doctor — they may be able to help you.
5. Both Your Good & Bad Moods Seem To Be Getting More Extreme
The Harvard Medical Health Letter describes hypomania as "a mood state or energy level that is elevated above normal, but not so extreme as to cause impairment — the most important characteristic distinguishing it from mania." People who experience hypomania may not view it as a problem, or may even see it as a positive development — and on rare occasion, someone may experience hypomania on its own, rather than as part of a bipolar disorder.
However, when it is part of a bipolar disorder that has been left untreated, hypomanic episodes can, according to CNN, "progress into mania or turn into a depressed state." Bipolar disorders in general are known to worsen in severity without professional help, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which notes that "episodes may become more frequent or more severe over time without treatment."
6. You Frequently Drop Projects In The Middle
Many people have a tendency to put projects on hold before they're completed, for many different reasons — which can range from intense familial responsibilities to other mental health issues (ADHD, for instance, can also lead people to frequently abandon projects in the middle). But if you drop hobbies or work projects you enjoy due to peaks and valleys in your mood — for example, a sculpture project that seemed totally doable when you started, but now seems like it requires an impossible amount of energy — it could be a sign that you're dealing with bipolar disorder. According to Health.com, many people with bipolar disorders use the energy they feel during hypomanic states to begin projects, which they are then unable to keep up with after the episode passes.
The Bottom Line
Finding out that you have a bipolar disorder isn't always easy or simple — according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, most people suffering from a bipolar disorder deal with symptoms for nearly a decade before getting an accurate diagnosis.
The good news is that bipolar disorders often respond well to professional treatment, which may involve a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes — and that people who are happy with their treatment are more likely to have a positive outlook on their ability to cope. Getting a diagnosis may be scary, but treatment is much less scary than facing this on your own.
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