Bipolar Disorder – Much More than Just Mood Swings

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One could say that people exhibiting bipolar disorder are the most emotional people in the world; although possibility true, this would be a rather simplistic way of describing it, but it would definitely give a good illustration of how those who have this disorder react.

When you see someone with quick and extreme mood changes, it may be more than just regular emotional swings. Although not always, a person exhibiting episodes of drastic mood changes may actually be suffering from bipolar disorder and is a mental illness that affects around 60 million people all over the world, according to the World Health Organization.

What is Bipolar Disorder and How is It Different from Regular Mood Swings?

It is normal to experience mood changes in everyday life – there are days when you feel happy and content and there are times when you can’t help feeling down or maybe even depressed. However, if the mood changes are too drastic and start to affect your daily life, there could be an underlying problem.

Drastic and severe mood changes with depressive and manic episodes are the key symptoms of bipolar disorder.

This is a disease that affects the brain and as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as an illness that is characterized by dramatic changes in one’s mood, activity levels, and energy. The highs and lows are so severe that they interfere with the patient’s everyday life and often makes it difficult (or impossible) to even carry out everyday tasks, not to mention the impact it has on that person’s friends and loved ones. The mood swings can last for prolonged periods, which then cause psychological distress.

The disease is also called manic-depressive disorder, which was a term used more often in the mid-20th century, reflecting the two extreme states of mood swings. Mania, or the high, is characterized by hyperactivity, grandiosity, and euphoria whereas the depressive state makes the person feel hopeless and lethargic. During the depressive stage, the patient loses interest in everything and becomes pessimistic.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Unfortunately, there is no test that can tell if a person is suffering from bipolar disorder. This makes the diagnosis quite difficult. The evaluation generally includes the following:

  • Physical Exam and Lab Tests – Since there is no test for bipolar disorder, doctors have to perform different types of tests, like body scans and blood tests, and a physical exam in order to rule out any physical medical condition that may be causing the symptoms.
  • Mood Charting – The doctor may ask you or a family member to keep an eye on (and maintain a record of) your mood swings, sleep patterns, and other behavioral factors on a daily basis.
  • Psychiatric Assessment – The diagnosis of bipolar disorder is often not made without the involvement of a psychiatrist. A person exhibiting some symptoms of the disease is often referred for a psychiatric assessment. This includes a number of things, like filling out a questionnaire or self-assessment form and consultation sessions with the psychiatrist during which the doctor will talk about your feelings, behaviors, and thoughts. The psychiatrist may also need to talk to a family member or a close friend regarding the symptoms a person is showing, in order to reach a decision.  Usually the psychiatrist can determine if the person is bipolar after just a few visits.

While the diagnosis is not solely made on the basis of symptoms, it can definitely help to reach a conclusion. According to experts, a person suffering from bipolar disorder generally shows at least three symptoms of mania and hypomania (a less severe stage of mania) and at least five symptoms of severe depression.

A manic or hypomanic episode is characterized by the following signs and symptoms:

  • Increased energy, activity, or agitation
  • Acting abnormally jumpy, or upbeat (hyper)
  • Talking much more than usual
  • Distractibility
  • Decreased sleep
  • Racing thoughts
  • Making poor decisions, for example, bad financial decisions, going on shopping sprees, etc.
  • Euphoria characterized by exaggerated self-confidence and sense of well-being

Some of the most common symptoms a bipolar person shows during a severe depressive episode include:

  • Feeling extremely sad, hopeless, and empty
  • An increase or decrease in appetite
  • Significant weight gain or weight loss without any apparent reason
  • Feeling restless
  • Sleeping too much (hypersomnia) or too little (insomnia)
  • A constant feeling of fatigue
  • Low energy and slowed behavior
  • Reduced concentration and ability to think
  • Indecisiveness
  • Losing interest in everything
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts

Depending on the type of bipolar disorder and its severity, some patients may also experience and exhibit anxiety, psychosis, ADHD, or substance abuse. The initial signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder often first appear during teen age. However, the mental condition can also affect children.

Unlike the common perception, it is possible to live a normal life even when you are diagnosed with this disease and the even better news is that there are many medications available to help the individual maintain a normal lifestyle. Therefore, consult a doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms – it may be more than just mood swings.

Lastly, we all need to be a little more empathetic towards people suffering from mental illnesses. They may not appear as severe as diseases that affect our body, they are equally (and maybe more) traumatic and painful. Instead of labeling anyone as psychotic, try and help them in some way –they may be suffering from a mental condition and may not be aware of it themselves.