How to tell the difference between mood swings and bipolar disorder

We all experience changes in mood. It’s part of human nature. But having bipolar disorder means more than just having mood swings. Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition in which people cycle between extreme highs and lows over a prolonged period of time. These states are called mania and depression.1

About 1 in 40 adults in the United States has bipolar disorder.2 It can take an average of 10 years from the time someone first has symptoms of bipolar disorder to diagnosis.2 And getting a diagnosis, isn't always easy if you don't know what to look for. However, when diagnosed and treated, most people with bipolar disorder are able to maintain stable moods so they're able to function in life.

To help identify bipolar disorder, it’s important to know 5 ways the condition differs from everyday mood swings. Read on to hear experts share what to do if you think you or a loved one might have bipolar disorder.

1. Bipolar disorder episodes are typically more severe than mood swings

Mood swings refer to the rapid change in emotions we all feel from time to time. For example, you might go from feeling happy to irritated to sad during the day, depending on what's happening in your life. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are different.

With bipolar disorder, manic episodes last at least 7 days, and depressive episodes (feeling very low) usually last at least 2 weeks.3 But not everyone with bipolar disorder experiences manic and depressive episodes to the same degree, explains Alexa Hall, M.D., a psychiatrist and the medical director at Neuro Wellness Spa in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, California. How severe the episodes are can vary from person to person.

Manic episodes may include:1

  • Excessive energy
  • High levels of self-esteem
  • Insomnia or restlessness
  • Racing thoughts
  • Easily distracted

Depressive episodes may include:1

  • Fatigue
  • Changes in sleep
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Challenges concentrating
  • Thoughts of death

2. Bipolar disorder episodes may seem to come out of the blue

While mood swings usually have a specific cause, bipolar episodes can seem to happen out of nowhere. In general, mood swings are triggered by an event in your life, like an issue at work or in a relationship, Dr. Hall explains.

It doesn’t always take an external event to cause a bipolar episode. That’s because factors — like family history — play a role in bipolar disorder, explains Dr. Hall.1 Sometimes, a person is not able to pinpoint why they’re in a great mood or a very depressed one.

3. Bipolar episodes last longer than mood swings

Mood swings may come and go quickly, notes Amy Lukes, L.I.C.S.W., director of Assisted  Outpatient Treatment Implementation at the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia. “A mood can be brief. Someone can feel great about a positive event that happened in the morning, but then have a negative event happen in the afternoon that causes them to feel crummy,” says Dr. Hall. Your mood may change throughout the day, which is perfectly normal.

Mood changes caused by bipolar episodes don’t tend to change that quickly. Bipolar disorder episodes can last several days or even weeks.3

4. A bipolar manic episode can make people more likely to engage in risky behavior

When people with bipolar disorder are in a manic state, they may become more impulsive, explains Dr. Hall. That may cause them to act in risky ways.

For example, a person with bipolar disorder may drive recklessly on the road or go on a spending spree.4 That type of extreme behavior usually doesn’t happen with mood swings, notes Lukes.

5. Bipolar disorder is linked to a higher risk of suicide

Suicidal thoughts are a symptom of depression. That’s one reason a person with bipolar disorder in a depressive state may have suicidal thoughts, Lukes explains. These types of thoughts usually only happen during severe depressive episodes and not everyday mood swings.1

“People with bipolar disorder have a heightened risk of suicide, especially if untreated,” Lukes says.4 That’s one reason it’s so important for anyone who thinks they may have bipolar disorder to seek help.

Getting treated for bipolar disorder

If you think you may have bipolar disorder, it’s important to see your health care provider. Even if you’re unsure, it’s a good idea to talk to a professional about how you’re feeling. Or, encourage a loved one to seek help if you think they may have bipolar disorder.

When a person gets diagnosed with bipolar disorder, treatment typically includes a combination of medication and therapy, explains Dr. Hall. Usually, people will start noticing a difference in how they feel within days or weeks of starting medication. Of course, each person’s treatment plan will look a little different.

Proper treatment may help stabilize bipolar disorder symptoms and make it easier to go about daily activities. “Medication can help minimize and even prevent further manic or depressive episodes,” Dr. Hall says. 

If you have questions about bipolar disorder, be sure to make an appointment with your health care provider. They’ll offer resources and guidance on how to improve your or a loved one’s mental health.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat for 24-hour, toll-free, confidential support and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. For TTY users, use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.Additional text would go here

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