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Signs of Bipolar Disorder | 21 Symptoms to Look for

There are many different signs of bipolar disorder, including signs of a manic episode and signs of a depressive episode.

Bipolar disorder, which was previously called manic-depressive illness or manic depression, is a mental disorder that causes abnormal shifts in levels of mood, energy, activity, concentration, and the ability to carry out regular, day-to-day tasks.

To better understand what this disorder is, it is helpful to first understand the signs of a manic and depressive episode.

Signs of a Bipolar Disorder Manic Episode

A manic episode (otherwise known as mania) is a period of feeling extreme energy, happiness, or irritable moods, and can last up to a week.

You might:

  1. talk faster than usual
  2. notice your thoughts racing
  3. take on lots of activities
  4. feel like you don’t need as much sleep

Some symptoms of a manic episode include:

  1. Loss of appetite
  2. Feeling jumpy or wired
  3. Having the sensation of feeling high or extreme elation
  4. Racing thoughts
  5. Risky or impulsive behavior (i.e., spending lots of money, hypersexuality)
  6. A sense of unusual importance
  7. Disorganized, fast speech (i.e., jokes, puns, singing, alliteration)
  8. Inability to concentrate on one thing at a time
  9. Partaking in many activities all at once

These signs of bipolar disorder can oftentimes be severe enough to be noticed by the people surrounding you, and even put your life at risk.

There are, however, ranges to mania. On one spectrum, you can experience intense, extreme mania (hypermania).

On the other end, you can also experience what’s known as hypomania, which is a milder form, and the symptoms don’t last as long as hypermania (about 4 days, whereas hypermania is closer to a week).

Signs of a Bipolar Disorder Depressive Episode

It’s important to note the difference between depression as a mental illness and a depressive episode as part of bipolar disorder.

Depressive episodes in bipolar oftentimes coincide with manic episodes. However, there are a variety of forms of bipolar disorder in which the levels and balance between manic and depressive episodes are different.

A depressive episode, according to the DSM-5, includes being in a depressed mood and loss of interest, alongside symptoms that occur nearly every day for about 2 weeks, such as:

  1. Increased or decreased appetite most days or a significant change in weight over the course of a month
  2. Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  3. Unusual agitation or restlessness or being sluggish and hesitant or feeling confused
  4. Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day, making it hard to perform day to day activities
  5. Feeling sad, low, or hopeless
  6. Feelings of worthlessness and/or guilt that are excessive or not related to anything a person who isn’t depressed would feel guilty about.
  7. Trouble concentrating and/or making decisions
  8. Recurring thoughts of death or of being dead, thinking about suicide without making a plan (suicidal ideation), or making plans of suicide/attempting suicide

These signs of bipolar disorder should be documented so that you can present them to your doctor when trying to diagnose what’s going on with you.

Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder

Diagnosing bipolar disorder in the face of the diverse symptoms and sequelae is a challenge that requires a high index of suspicion.

If you think you or someone you know is experiencing bipolar disorder, it’s important that you/they consult with a doctor.

Patients who first present to a primary care physician with bipolar disorder may show a wide range of mood-related symptoms.

Certain psychiatric and medical comorbidities are also extremely common and, by their presence, may raise a suspicion of bipolar disorder.

The patient’s family history and social history (i.e., relationship problems, financial troubles). From there, a doctor can help you with a treatment plan depending on the kind of bipolar disorder you might have.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

There are several different types of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar I Disorder

This disorder is classified as having manic episodes that last at least 7 days or manic symptoms that are so severe that you need to go to a hospital.

Depressive episodes may occur as well, lasting about 2 weeks.

Bipolar II Disorder

Like Bipolar I, Bipolar II is also defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but these episodes are not nearly as extreme in their severity and symptoms.

Cyclothymic Disorder (also known as Cyclothymia)

This disorder includes periods of hypomania and depression that last at least 2 years in adults and one year in children or young adults.

The symptoms are not the same requirements for manic/depressive episodes.

Rapid-cycling

This type of disorder includes having 4 or more depressive or manic episodes within a 12-month period.

Some may experience changes in polarity from high to low or vice-versa within a single week, or even within a single day, meaning that the full symptom profile that defines distinct, separate episodes may not be present (ie, not experiencing a decreased need for sleep).

Bipolar Treatment Options

Regardless of whichever bipolar type you or someone you know may be struggling with, there are thankfully many treatment options.

Depending on the severity, a doctor may prescribe medications to help balance the mood swings.

Unfortunately, there is no “cure” for bipolar (just as there is no one-size-fits-all drug or treatment for depression), but symptoms can be managed with treatment.

The best course of action includes a combination of medication and therapy, such as talk therapy.

Therapy can help a patient use specific tools or coping mechanisms to guide them through their episodes and mood-swings while they are on their medication.

My Experience

Like depression, sometimes bipolar is present in a person, but something else triggers it or brings it to light. In my personal experience, I suffered from major depressive disorder at a young age.

My symptoms were severe enough for my therapist at the time to seek treatment with a psychiatrist and get a prescription for medication.

However, because there was a history in my family, I was told to look out for any signs of bipolar disorder while I was on medication.

Sometimes, according to my therapist, it’s possible that bipolar disorder might be “dormant” until another factor, such as antidepressants, bring about those symptoms.

In my experience, the antidepressants did not escalate any of those symptoms, and I did not have bipolar disorder, but it was important for me to monitor my moods as I adjusted to the medication over time.

A Lifelong Illness That Can Be Misdiagnosed

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness that involves a lot of shifting mood swings and confusion. 

Depending on how extreme the symptoms are, it can be misdiagnosed as schizophrenia.

Similarly, someone who experiences a depressive form of bipolar rather than mania can be mistreated for just depression.

It’s important to know the signs of bipolar disorder and track them as well as the shifting moods, whether it’s through journaling or with a tracking app on your phone.

The more you’re aware of your own behavior shifts and changes, the easier it becomes to see when you might be experiencing a particular mental health disorder or illness.

Do you suffer from bipolar? Tell me in the comments what signs of bipolar disorder you’re experiencing.

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Samantha Mineroff

Samantha Mineroff is a writer, mental health advocate, and aspiring author. In 2018, her paper, “The Rhetoric of Major Depressive Disorder: Performativity and Intra-activity of Emotions in Major Depression” won best seminar paper award at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. At the Poetics And Linguistics Association (PALA) Conference in 2019, she went to The University of Liverpool to present her paper “An Application of Scripts, Schemas, and Negative Accommodation Theory in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.” She currently works as a marketing writer for clinical research. She enjoys live jazz, good conversation, and writing letters. You can reach her at sammineroff@gmail.com