Recognizing Real Bipolar Symptoms: Cutting Through the Confusion of This Disorder


Recognizing bipolar symptoms is difficult for a number of reasons.

The signs of bipolar disorder are notoriously easy to confuse. It is one thing to look at lists of bipolar mania symptoms, and bipolar depression symptoms – but how can you tell if the potentially bipolar behavior you see in yourself, or someone in your family, really amounts to an episode of bipolar mania or depression?

The answer is not simple. Even experienced psychiatric doctors need to conduct many bipolar disorder tests and will often spend months observing their patients before making an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

What You’ll Learn on This Page About Bipolar Symptoms

On this page you can read advice about recognizing bipolar symptoms, and learn why it is seldom easy to do.

  • You can read why bipolar symptoms are more than just mood swings, contrary to a common misconception.
  • Some bipolar disorder symptoms are relatively common but they can often be confused with the symptoms of other mental and physical illnesses.
  • Some serious bipolar symptoms are far less common, but potentially more dangerous. If you see signs of these serious bipolar symptoms, you should contact a doctor as soon as possible.
  • In the main section of this page, you can learn about some of the common factors that cause confusion about bipolar symptoms, including some of the other physical and mental illnesses can cause symptoms that are similar to bipolar symptoms.
  • In particular, bipolar depression symptoms and the symptoms of so-called “unipolar” or “major” depression are easily confused. But there are some differences in their symptoms, and important differences in their treatments.
  • Perhaps you have not been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but you are asking “am I bipolar?” because think you may show some signs of bipolar behavior. Or you may be worried that someone in your family, or someone you know, is showing signs of bipolar disorder. Only a psychiatric doctor can diagnose bipolar disorder, but knowledge of bipolar symptoms can help you decide if you, or someone you know, should see a doctor for an assessment.
  • Some parents may be especially concerned that they may see bipolar symptoms in their children. You can learn about the special difficulties of recognizing bipolar disorder symptoms in children in the last section of this page.

Bipolar Symptoms Are More Than Mood Swings

Bipolar Disorder Is a Long-Term Mental Illness with a Variety of Symptoms that Can Be Hard to Recognize

Some of the most common bipolar symptoms – such as feeling elated or depressed – might seem to apply to almost anyone at different times, depending on how they feel from day to day. It’s quite normal for people to feel changes in mood, in response to everyday events or even for no apparent reason. After all, everyone has good days and bad days.

But Bipolar Symptoms Are Much More than Just Good and Bad Moods

The mood changes and other symptoms of bipolar disorder can occur every day for several weeks or months.

The onset of an episode of bipolar mania or bipolar depression can be triggered by what seem to be ordinary events, but they will usually last much longer than in people who don’t have bipolar disorder.

And when a bipolar episode comes to an end, the emotional state of a bipolar person starts to shift to the opposite extreme of mood – the characteristic “roller-coaster” cycle of mania and depression that defines what is bipolar disorder.

Bipolar symptoms can also include mental and physical problems quite apart from changes in mood. Common bipolar disorder symptoms can include changes in how people think, how they speak, or how they behave with other people. Most people find they are unable to function in their normal daily routines while they are suffering from an episode of bipolar mania or bipolar depression.

Most people will experience only bipolar mania or bipolar depression symptoms during a bipolar episode. But some people can go through “mixed state episodes” when they experience both bipolar mania and bipolar depression symptoms at the same time.

List of Common Bipolar Mania Symptoms

A manic episode is an “elated” or emotionally “high” state that can last from a few days to several weeks.

Some common signs of bipolar mania include:

• An unusual or unrealistically positive mood

• Irritability or short temper
• Agitated or aggressive behavior
• Sleeping little but not feeling tired
• Losing interest in food and losing weight
• Increased physical activity
• Talking a lot and at high speed
• Having “racing thoughts”
• Poor judgment
• Being easily distracted
• Talking or thinking about sex more often
• Behaving in risky or impulsive ways
• Spending sprees and poor financial choices
• Careless or dangerous use of alcohol and drugs
• Increased focus on “pleasure-seeking” activities
• Increased drive to achieve goals

This is just a brief list of some common bipolar mania symptoms. You can read more about the symptoms of mania in detail on the homepage of this website on Bipolar Disorder Symptoms.

List of Common Bipolar Depression Symptoms

The opposite extreme to bipolar mania is bipolar depression – a “depressed” or “low” emotional state that can last from a few days to several weeks.

Some common bipolar depression symptoms include:

• Sad moods that last a long time
• Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
• Anxiety and excessive worry
• Crying spells
• Losing interest in normally enjoyable activities
• Losing interest in sex
• Withdrawing from social activities
• Oversleeping, but feeling tired during the day
• Binging on food
• Complaining of pain or illness without apparent cause
• Decreased physical activity

• Reduced physical coordination
• Slowed or slurred speech
• Problems concentrating and making decisions
• Ignoring or avoiding important tasks
• Poor performance at school or work

You can read more about the bipolar depression symptoms in detail on this page Bipolar Disorder Symptoms.

Serious Bipolar Symptoms

Serious bipolar symptoms are less common, more easy to recognize – and potentially more dangerous. If you see signs of the following bipolar symptoms in yourself or someone you know, then it is important to seek medical help as soon as possible.

  • Serious Bipolar Mania Symptom: Hallucinations and Delusions
    The most serious symptoms of bipolar mania are hallucinations and delusions. These are forms of psychosis that can also occur in people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

    A person suffering from hallucinations may see or hear things that aren’t real – such as seeing people who aren’t really there or hearing voices when no-one is speaking. A person suffering from delusions will believe things that aren’t really happening – such as thinking that other people are plotting to hurt them.

    People suffering from manic hallucinations and delusions can lose touch with reality for a time, which can be dangerous for themselves and for the people around them. Fortunately hallucinations or delusions usually pass quickly, especially if the person experiencing them can get medical help. Some people may need to spend some time in hospital until their symptoms pass.

  • Serious Bipolar Depression Symptom: Thoughts of Suicide
    The most dangerous bipolar depression symptom is thoughts of suicide. People with bipolar depression may find themselves thinking or talking about killing themselves, even if they have no real intention of harming themselves at all. But it is not always possible to tell who is really at risk.

    If you are having thoughts of suicide, or see signs of suicidal thinking in someone you know, then it is important that you get medical help as soon as possible.

Where to Get Help for Serious Bipolar Symptoms:

Your local emergency services (911 in the US, 999 in the UK, and 112 in many European countries), your local doctor, and your local hospital are the best places to seek help in an emergency. You can also contact 24-hour telephone helplines in many countries – some common telephone numbers are given on the homepage of this website on Bipolar Disorder Symptoms.

Why Bipolar Symptoms Are Hard to Recognize

Many factors can make common bipolar symptoms hard to recognize.

Bipolar Symptoms Change Over Time

The changes that come with the cycle of bipolar episodes mean that a person’s bipolar symptoms can change from day to day. Different bipolar symptoms can appear and recede over the course of a single bipolar episode, and may not always be the same from episode to episode.

Each “episode” of mania and depression usually last a few weeks to a few months, before the mood of a person returns to their “normal” emotional state for a time. Then their mood starts to change to the other emotional extreme of mania or depression. Most people with bipolar disorder tend to have longer periods of depression than periods of mania, and usually first visit a doctor to seek treatment for depression.

Bipolar Symptoms can be Subtle

While people with the most severe types of bipolar disorder may experience symptoms that are hard to mistake, most people with bipolar disorder have relatively milder conditions – such as bipolar 2 disorder or cyclothymia – and so they usually have milder bipolar symptoms that can be subtle and hard to spot.

Individuals Express Symptoms in Unique Ways

Everyone responds differently to their changing moods, and people with bipolar disorder will express their symptoms in uniquely personal ways. Some people may try to reign in or control their symptoms; others may just “let themselves go.”

Personalities also play a part: someone whose outlook is usually outgoing or cheerful, for example, can be expected to behave quite differently during an episode of mania or depression than someone who is naturally serious or reserved for most of the time.

Gender Differences can play a Part

Studies have shown that bipolar symptoms in women can be harder to recognize than in men. Paradoxically, this is thought to be in part because women are usually more demonstrative with their feelings than men – a psychological factor known as “affective loading.”

But women are also more likely than men to suffer from milder types of bipolar disorder – which means their condition is also more likely to be overlooked.

Some Bipolar Mania Symptoms can seem “Normal”

Some people may not recognize that they have symptoms of mania at all – they may mistake their manic symptoms for a positive but normal state of mind once their depression has lifted.

Some people even like how they feel when they experience an episode of mania: it may make them uncommonly outgoing, or creative, or productive at work. But these bipolar symptoms are also facets of their illness, and if they are untreated they can develop into something more serious.

Many Bipolar Symptoms are Similar to Symptoms of Other Conditions

Many bipolar symptoms can be confused with the symptoms of other mental disorders and illnesses.

Some physical illnesses, such as the glandular disorder hyperthyroidism or even a stroke, can cause symptoms that appear similar to symptoms of bipolar mania. And some medications – and some illicit drugs – can cause symptoms that can be confused with bipolar disorder symptoms.

Bipolar Symptoms May Be Confusing: Bipolar Depression and Unipolar Depression

“Unipolar” depression is a term now used to describe the mood disorder of “major” depression, to distinguish it from an episode of bipolar depression. Many unipolar depression and bipolar depression symptoms are similar – and this makes it difficult even for experienced doctors to tell them apart.

Many of the psychological tests administered by doctors assessing patients for mood disorders are designed to help highlight the differences between unipolar and bipolar depression.

But studies have shown that unipolar depression and bipolar depression have some distinctive features that set them apart. These differences indicate that the two conditions have different causes, although these causes are not yet well understood.

List of Differences between Bipolar Depression Symptoms and Unipolar Depression Symptoms

  • People suffering from unipolar depression tend to have trouble falling asleep and staying sleeping, while people with bipolar depression often sleep more than usual.
  • People with unipolar depression often lose their appetite altogether and may lose weight – but people with bipolar depression tend to alternate between bingeing on food (especially high carbohydrate foods) and not eating.
  • People with unipolar depression tend to show agitated and restless behavior, while people with bipolar depression often become lethargic and inactive.
  • Unipolar depression also more women more than men, while bipolar depression (and bipolar disorder in general) affects men and women in equal numbers.
  • Episodes of unipolar depression usually last longer than episodes of bipolar depression.
  • Substance abuse and thoughts of suicide are more common among people with bipolar depression.

Unipolar depression and bipolar depression also are treated differently. People diagnosed with unipolar depression will often be given anti-depressant medications to help stabilize their mood. But the most common types of anti-depressants can spark a manic or mixed episode in people with bipolar depression, so specialist anti-depressant and mood stabilizing medications are used instead.

Recognizing Bipolar Symptoms – Am I Bipolar?

So how can you recognize bipolar symptoms in yourself or in someone you know? The short answer is – you can’t.

It is not possible to diagnose yourself, or tell if someone you know has bipolar disorder, without a clinical assessment by a doctor.

You may think you know yourself or a family member better than any doctor, but without the training and techniques used by doctors to make a diagnosis you will be searching in the dark for answers.

Only a doctor can make a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. And even skilled psychiatric doctors with decades of experience treating patients with bipolar disorder can only make a diagnosis after weeks, months – or in some cases even years – of observing their patients.

Like many people, you may worry “am I bipolar?”

It may be that you fear some of your own behavior shows signs of bipolar disorder, or you may think you see bipolar symptoms in someone in your family, such as a child or a partner. This is a natural worry if you see unusual behavior, but it is good to know that you should not over-react.

Although bipolar disorder sometimes seems to be common – an impression strengthened by growing public awareness of the disorder, as well as an increasing number of celebrities who have reported they suffer from bipolar disorder in recent years – the truth is that bipolar disorder is actually rather rare.

Only about one percent of the population is thought to be affected by bipolar disorder, and almost all people who suffer from bipolar disorder can now be treated effectively. So while many people worry that they, or someone they know, has bipolar disorder – in most cases they will find they really have nothing to worry about.

However, bipolar disorder is potentially serious, and you should take potential symptoms seriously. Not everyone needs to be tested for bipolar disorder, but signs of bipolar disorder should serve as a warning that you or someone you know should see a doctor.

Bipolar Symptoms in Children and Teenagers

Some parents may worry that their children may show bipolar symptoms.

While all parents can relate to the changes their children go through as they grow up, it can often be hard to tell if a child’s behavior is “just a phase,” or perhaps a sign of a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder.

There is greater cause for concern if someone else in the family has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, because the condition is known to run in families.

Childhood bipolar disorder is fortunately quite rare and in most cases there is nothing to worry about.

Most people with bipolar disorder develop it in their late teen or early adult years. But research has shown that some adults diagnosed with bipolar disorder also had some bipolar symptoms in childhood.

Recently doctors have started diagnosing more children with bipolar disorder – although childhood bipolar symptoms can be confused with other disorders, such as disruptive behavior problems and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Bipolar symptoms in children can be very different from bipolar symptoms in adults.

Instead of clear-cut episodes of depression and mania, mood swings in children and teenagers can happen over a period of a few hours. They are also more likely to show mixed symptoms of mania and depression at the same time.

List of Common Signs of Bipolar Disorder in Children

• Rapid changes in mood
• Explosive or destructive outbursts of temper
• Poor concentration
• Decreased need for sleep
• Aggressive behavior
• Irritability
• Hyperactive, restless or impulsive behavior
• Unusual elated behavior or “giddiness”
• Over-sensitivity to some emotional or environmental situations
• Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
• Separation anxiety
• Obsessive behavior
• Hypersexuality, such as excessive flirting or other sexual behavior
• Frequent complaints of pain or illness such as headaches, muscle pain
• Frequent complaints of tiredness or fatigue
• Poor performance in school or frequent absences from school
• Unexplained crying
• Social isolation

But it is important NOT to over-react if your child shows some of the behaviors on this list.

Almost every child is likely to show at least some of these symptoms at some time in their growing years, and almost all these symptoms can be caused by any number of temporary conditions. But children with bipolar disorder are likely to show several bipolar symptoms in the course of a single day, and their episodes of mania or depression will appear very different from their normal mood.

Only a doctor can determine if your child has bipolar disorder, or some other mood disorder or behavioral problem. If you do think your child may be showing signs of bipolar disorder, it is important that they be assessed by a doctor.

What Would You Like to Read Now After This Article on Bipolar Symptoms?

Bipolar Depression Symptoms List: Typical Manic and Depression Behavior Traits to Look for

Bipolar Disorder Symptoms in Depth:A Research-Based Guide to Understanding ‘What Is Bipolar?’

12 Clinical Depression Symptoms and Psychological Depression Signs: Learn When and How to Act

Learn about the Physical Symptoms of Depression and the Emotional Depression Signs

Go to the top of this article about Bipolar Symptoms

Go to the homepage What Is Depression

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