I’d say that bipolar is one of the most commonly misused labels I’ve come across in my practice. “Oh, well she’s bipolar – she’s always having mood swings!”
The reality is that most of us humans have mood swings and can feel “crazy” at times. For those individuals with Bipolar Disorder, mood can be like riding a big, winding, looping roller coaster of emotions ranging from intense highs and really low lows.
The previous name for bipolar disorder was Manic Depressive Disorder. As much as “bipolar” is in our common conversational dialogue nowadays, so was being a “Manic-Depressive” or feeling “manic.” Mania and depression were considered two states, or two poles within the disorder, hence the newer term Bipolar Disorder.
At one end of the spectrum is mania. Mania is a combination of the following symptoms, including feeling “up”, “high”, or elated, sometimes feeling irritated or easily agitated, needing little sleep, having lots of energy, talking fast and quickly switching from topic to topic, feeling as if one’s mind is going really fast, doing risky things like spending a lot of money, using excessive drugs or alcohol, or having reckless sex. These manic symptoms might not all be present for each person, but the period of mania is distinct, lasting a few days up to a week. This symptom cluster is not to be confused with having a good day or period of days, or being in a positive, happy mood. An individual in a manic episode has difficulty managing their lives with the erratic, impulsive behavior, which can sometimes result in legal problems.
In between manic episodes, the person experiences bouts of clinical depression. Mild depression can affect just about anyone, but clinically impairing depression goes beyond feeling blue for a day or two. A depressive episode includes symptoms of feeling depressed or down for most of the day, nearly every day for at least two weeks. During this time, appetite may be nonexistent or the opposite, feeling an urge to keep eating. Sleep may be disturbed, either by an inability to fall or stay asleep or the opposite, sleeping or desiring to sleep for hours beyond the average sleep cycle (6-8 hours). During the daytime, the depressed person may have low energy, fatigue, sluggishness or may feel fidgety or restless. Other emotions that can accompany depressed mood, include feeling hopeless, worthless, or excessively guilty and unmotivated to do usual activities. More serious symptoms include concentration problems, inability to make decisions and persistent thoughts of death or of suicide.
What outsiders see in the person with Bipolar Disorder is the swing from hyper or high, to irritable and impulsive, and ultimately crashing into a depressive state. The switch can be rapid (week to week) or over the span of months or years.
Bottom line: When thinking Bipolar Disorder, think of extremes in mood and behavior. Being moody, touchy or sensitive isn’t bipolar by itself, but could be a reaction to stressful events or a personality style. If you do know of a person suffering from Bipolar Disorder, encourage them to seek professional help if they have not. This condition is not curable, but one can learn to maneuver and manage the symptoms for a better quality of life.