Symptoms & Signs of Bipolar Disorder

a woman struggling to deal with her symptoms of bipolar disorderBipolar disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition that many people know as “manic depression.” While not entirely inaccurate, this term fails to reflect the range of symptoms of bipolar disorder that can appear in affected individuals. In fact, you would never know from this description that bipolar illnesses actually appear in three separate forms, each of which comes with its own set of mental health challenges. Let’s take a closer look at the full range of symptoms that can occur.

Symptoms of Bipolar I Disorder

Bipolar I disorder is what most people think of when the subject of bipolar illness comes up. People affected by this condition experience at least one bout of an unusual and dysfunctional mood, known as mania, that lasts for a minimum of seven days or produces shorter-lasting but more severe symptoms. In most cases, people with bipolar I disorder also experience depression symptoms serious enough to qualify separately as major depression.

Potential symptoms of mania include:

  • An inflated sense of self-worth or esteem
  • Unusually rapid patterns of thought
  • An unusual inability to avoid distraction
  • A significant decline in the need to sleep
  • An unusual tendency to talk excessively
  • An increased tendency to focus strongly on goals
  • An increased willingness to engage in clearly risky behavior

By definition, a manic state interferes with your ability to function normally in everyday life. In addition, it can lead to a need for temporary hospitalization. In a worst-case scenario, mania can trigger psychosis, a loss of contact with reality that can include hallucinations, delusional thinking, or a combination of these two major mental health issues.

Potential symptoms of depression in a person with bipolar I disorder include:

  • A persistent “down” mood (e.g., feelings of sadness, hopelessness or emptiness)
  • A reduced or absent ability to experience pleasure
  • Significantly altered sleep patterns (insomnia or excessive sleepiness)
  • Significant appetite changes
  • An inability to think clearly
  • Frequent feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Unusual restlessness or sluggishness
  • A notable decline in energy levels
  • Involvement in suicide-related thinking, planning or action

At least five of these symptoms appear (simultaneously or separately) within a time period that lasts for at least two weeks.

Symptoms of Bipolar II Disorder

In some ways, the symptoms of bipolar disorder in people with this condition resemble those found in people with bipolar I disorder. Specifically, people with bipolar II disorder can experience bouts of depression that meet the criteria for major depression. However, instead of experiencing episodes of mania, they experience episodes of a less severe state known as hypomania. The list of potential hypomania symptoms is the same as the list of potential mania symptoms. But hypomania never grows severe enough to seriously disrupt you or your loved one’s ability to function normally or maintain a daily routine. In addition, people experiencing episodes of hypomania don’t develop psychosis.

Symptoms of Cyclothymic Disorder

The third form of bipolar illness is called cyclothymic disorder or cyclothymia. Like people with bipolar II disorder, people with this condition experience episodes of hypomania instead of episodes of mania. However, instead of the major depression symptoms associated with bipolar I disorder and bipolar II disorder, cyclothymic disorder triggers bouts of a less severe form of depression called dysthymia. The symptoms of dysthymia are basically the same as the symptoms of major depression. However, they don’t have as much of an impact on the ability to maintain normal function. In addition, bouts of dysthymia in a person with cyclothymic disorder occur repeatedly over a period of two years or longer.

Additional Symptoms

The symptoms of bipolar disorder may also take other forms in people with the bipolar I or bipolar II version of the condition. Examples of these additional potential symptoms include:

  • “Mixed” episodes that include indications of both mania/hypomania and depression
  • A non-reactive mental and physical state called catatonia
  • Unusually rapid cycling between manic/hypomanic episodes and depressive episodes
  • Episodes of mania/hypomania or depression that only occur during the transition between seasons of the year

Does Your Loved One Have Bipolar Disorder?

Everyone experiences ups and downs from time to time. People without mental illness can usually attribute mood swings to difficulties. People living with bipolar disorder  (sometimes called manic depression) experience unpredictable, severe highs (manias or hypomanias) and lows (depression), regularly.

Healthy relationships with people living with symptoms of bipolar disorder are difficult. Their extreme mood swings of mania and depression are taxing. They may also struggle with substance abuse, making matters even worse. You may find yourself in a love-hate cycle with them. Their manic episodes can sometimes be energizing and exciting. Other times the mania phase can be scary and exhausting. A depressive episode is typically dark and disturbing.

The symptoms of bipolar disorder vary depending on the type of episode (manic or depressive). Each episode marks a dramatic change from the way your loved one normally acts. They will alternate between manic and depressive episodes when active in their disorder.  Review the following warning signs if you’re concerned a loved one may have bipolar disorder.

People in the manic phase may:

  • Feel a sense euphoria
  • Feel invincible and extremely self confident
  • Speak so quickly it’s difficult to understand them
  • Have a decreased need for sleep, yet still feel full of energy
  • Feel easily agitated, hyper and distracted
  • Take large risks
  • Recklessly spend money
  • Act out sexually
  • Make business decisions with devastating consequences

During a depressive episode they may:

  • Feel sad or hopeless
  • Feel worried  and empty
  • Have trouble concentrating
  • Be forgetful
  • Lose interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Have trouble sleeping or sleep too much
  • Think about death or suicide

Other Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Symptoms of bipolar disorder involve more than mood swings. It causes abrupt shifts in mood and energy that make it hard to function in everyday activities. People with bipolar disorder may experience a range of potentially serious consequences, including:

  • Damaged relationships
  • Job loss or poor job performance
  • Poor school performance
  • Self-harm or suicide attempts

Bipolar disorder (once known as manic depression) is a serious mental illness.  Extreme mood swings may occur only a few times a year or as often as several times a week.

What Are Causes of Bipolar Disorder?

About 40% of people with bipolar disorder receive another diagnosis first. They may go years before they’re diagnosed with bipolar. Many people that receive a depression diagnosis may actually have bipolar disorder. Nobody knows exactly what causes bipolar disorder.  Several factors may contribute to the onset of the illness, including:

Genetics: Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. It seems to have more to do with genetic makeup than upbringing.

Physiology: Chemical and physical abnormalities in the brain may be one of the causes of bipolar disorder.

Environment: Traumatic events can trigger bipolar disorder in people already at risk. These may include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Stressful events like job loss

Substance abuse: Substance abuse increases your risk of bipolar disorder if you already have a genetic predisposition.


National Institute of Mental Health: Bipolar Disorder