What is Bipolar Disorder? Common Symptoms, Different Types & When to Ask for Help

By Tatenda


Last Updated: December 5, 2022

Just like with many psychological conditions, bipolar disorder is also largely misunderstood.

This makes it difficult for people to seek help for the condition. That is why awareness is a very important step in mental health improvement. 

Bipolar often overlaps with several other mental health conditions, which makes it an even more complex issue to understand.

This article unpacks the basics of the condition and will give you the basic knowledge which you can build on further with more reading. 



An Overview of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is the ‘new’ term for a condition that was previously known as manic depression. It is primarily characterized by extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). 

In the manic period, one feels overly happy and energized. The confidence that one experiences in this phase might come along with impulsive and reckless decision-making. In the manic phase, some people also experience hallucinations and delusions. 

Hypomania is characterized by milder symptoms of mania. In this phase, one’s high symptoms do not necessarily get in the way of their day to day life.

Both manic and hypomanic episodes include three or more of these symptoms:

  • Distractibility
  • Racing thoughts
  • Abnormally upbeat, jumpy or wired
  • Poor decision-making (such as going on unnecessary buying sprees, risky sexual behavior, or making poor investments)
  • Unusual talkativeness
  • Increased activity, energy, or agitation
  • An exaggerated sense of well-being and self-confidence (euphoria)
  • Decreased need for sleep

In the depression phase, they feel hopeless and sad. One experiences symptoms that are similar to those experienced when someone has a major depressive disorder or clinical depression.

These symptoms are severe and noticeable. They typically make it challenging for one to get through day-to-day activities. 

According to the DSM-5, a depressive episode consists of five or more of these symptoms: 

  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Restlessness or slowed behavior
  • Depressed mood (feeling sad, empty, hopeless or tearful. In children and teens, this might appear as irritability)
  • Decreased ability to concentrate or think or indecisiveness
  • Loss of interest or feeling no pleasure in all or almost all activities
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting, weight gain, or fluctuations in appetite (in children, failure to gain weight when expected can be a sign of depression)
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt

Between the phases, one will likely feel ‘normal’. 



Types of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar I disorder

People with this type have experienced at least one manic episode.

The episodes should have lasted for at least seven days, or they must have been so severe that one had to be hospitalized. In some cases, mania might trigger psychosis, otherwise known as a break from reality.

While depressive episodes are common and are typically extreme that they last at least 2 weeks, they are not necessary for the diagnosis. 


Bipolar II disorder

Here one experiences both hypomanic and depressive episodes.

To be diagnosed with bipolar II, you shouldn’t have ever experienced a manic episode. 

While not as extreme as bipolar I, it is not simply a milder form of bipolar, but an entirely different disorder. 


Cyclothymic disorder

This is also known as cyclothymia. 

It consists of periods of manic and depressive behavior. These periods must have lasted for at least 2 years in adults or 1 year in children and teens. 

The symptoms are less severe in comparison to bipolar I and II, but they require professional interventions as they can interfere with one’s daily life and have the potential to develop into bipolar I and bipolar II. 


Other specified bipolar and related disorder

This diagnosis is given to those who have symptoms of bipolar disorder (such as manic and depressive episodes) but do not fit into the other bipolar categories.

This might be because the symptoms are not as intense as specified to meet the criteria, or they haven’t lasted for the minimum period required for one to get a particular diagnosis. 


Unspecified bipolar and related disorder

This diagnosis is given when the healthcare professional doesn’t have enough information to make a specific diagnosis. 



When to See a Professional for Bipolar Disorder

Due to a lack of awareness, most people with bipolar disorder do not realize that they are experiencing something that requires medical attention.

They fail to realize how the episodes are disrupting their lives and interactions with those around them.

If you notice any of the above symptoms, it is best not to ignore them and hope they die away. 

That usually doesn’t happen. Rather, the symptoms continue getting worse. To effectively notice and keep track of the behavior changes, consider journaling.  

Talk about the symptoms with your doctor or a mental health professional. They will be able to determine the most effective intervention that will allow you to continue living your best life and keep the symptoms under control. 

Discussing any concerning patterns with a professional is something that we should never be embarrassed about. 

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