Bipolar disorder is one of the most well-known mental illnesses out there, not least because its symptoms are hard to miss. However, most people are unaware that it can come in a subtle form known as cyclothymic disorder. In the same way that persistent depressive disorder, formerly known as dysthymic disorder, is a milder manifestation of major depression, cyclothymic disorder is characterized by many of the same symptoms as bipolar disorder; the only difference is that they're less intense. Needless to say, this is both a blessing and a curse. Bipolar disorder is one of the most difficult mental illnesses to treat, and it can wreak havoc on someone's life before a diagnosis — but cyclothymic disorder's symptoms are sometimes so subtle that it may go untreated for years.
So what is cyclothymia — and for that matter, what is bipolar disorder? Both illnesses are characterized by unusual mood swings, far beyond the ups and downs of everyday life. During high points, known as manic episodes, people are hyperactive, overly irritable, and restless to the point of sleep deprivation. Depressive episodes, on the other hand, have the opposite effect: Sluggishness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities. (These episodes aren't mutually exclusive, by the way.)
Although bipolar disorder is divided into two categories, bipolar I and II, cyclothymia comes in just one variation. Bipolar disorder is relatively common — it affects an estimated 5.7 million adults in the United States alone — but cyclothymic disorder is actually considered rare. Of course, that could be because its symptoms are rarely debilitating, making it easy to brush them off. In fact, psychotherapist Sheri Van Dijk told Psych Central that it's frequently loved ones who tend to notice something is wrong, rather than those who have the disorder themselves.
However, this doesn't mean people with cyclothymia have it easy. The attendant mood swings can take a toll on relationships, and there's evidence that the disorder sometimes worsens with time. Let's take a look at eight signs of cyclothymic disorder below — and if they sound a little too familiar, it may be an indication to seek help.
1. Your Mood Shifts Without Warning
As you've no doubt gathered by now, people with cyclothymia experience unpredictable mood swings between hypomania, which typically lasts around a week, and mild to moderate depression, which may last longer. Although the symptoms may not disrupt your life in the way that bipolar disorder does, the unpredictability of your moods makes everyday functioning much harder.
2. You Feel On Top Of the World...
When you're experiencing a hypomanic episode, you may feel overly cheerful and optimistic even in the face of objectively difficult events.
3. ...But Then You Crash
They may not occur directly after each other, but hypomania is eventually followed by depression. (Interestingly, manic episodes almost never occur on their own.)
4. You Get Inexplicably Irritable
Both depression and hypomania are known to cause irritability and agitation.
5. Your Thoughts Race
During a hypomanic episode, you may feel like you can't control your thoughts — they jump from topic to topic without landing on anything for long. Combined with the poor judgment common during hypomania, you can see how this often lands people in hot water.
6. Your Mood Affects Your Sleep
One of the most important criteria for diagnosing cyclothymia (and bipolar disorder) is sleep disruption: During hypomanic phases, you may feel like you function perfectly on four hours of sleep. On the other hand, depression can cause insomnia or excessive sleeping.
7. You Feel Like You're Moving Through Molasses
In the same way that manic episodes are characterized by fidgeting and restlessness, depression may cause "psychomotor retardation," aka physically moving slower.
8. Stability Never Lasts Long
We all go through ups and downs; mood swings are part of being human (and especially part of being a teenager). In fact, people with cyclothymia may even feel totally normal between episodes. However, this stability never lasts long; one of the most important criteria is that mood swings always return within two months.