Mood Swings: Is It Bipolar Disorder?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people talk about mood swings (their own or someone else’s) and conclude that the person in question has Bipolar Disorder. While it is true that people who have Bipolar Disorder do have mood swings, there are very specific symptoms that distinguish the mood swings of someone with this severe and often debilitating disorder from the mood swings of someone with less intense issues.

Hopefully this article will work to help clarify what can be a very confusing (and important) topic.

First of all, Bipolar Disorder isn’t that common: about 4% of the US adult population carries this diagnosis, and somewhere between zero and 3% of children and adolescents suffer from the disorder.  (There is some debate over how exactly to classify these mood changes in younger people.)  It typically begins in late adolescence.

Like all mood disorders, having a family member with the disorder increases your risk for developing that same disorder (or another mood disorder).  Other factors that can contribute to the development of Bipolar Disorder include experiencing a stressful life event, being in your late teens or early twenties, and using alcohol and drugs

Bipolar Disorder is doesn’t always occur alone.  Many people with this condition also suffer from Anxiety Disorders (PTSD and Generalized Anxiety to name a few), ADHD, and Substance Use Disorders. People with the aforementioned diagnoses can also (independently of Bipolar Disorder) have ‘mood swings’, which further complicates the diagnostic picture.  It is important to treat the whole person, not just the disorder, so these other conditions need to be addressed also.  People with the aforementioned conditions (whether or not they have Bipolar Disorder also) can have mood swings.  This further complicates the diagnostic picture, making it even more imperative for someone with fluctuations in mood that interfere with their day-to-day functioning get evaluated by a mental health provider skilled in making these sometimes tricky distinctions.

The mood swings in Bipolar consist of Manic episodes alternating with periods of depressionmixed episodes (symptoms of depression and mania together) or relatively normal moods.  Although people who have Bipolar Disorder can certainly be irritable or have outbursts, their moods are generally more prolonged and last several days to weeks or even months. In rare cases moods may shift as many as several times per day, but it is much more common for mood states to last for longer periods of time.  The most common mood for someone with Bipolar Disorder to be in is a depressed one.  


Even though Depression is the prominent mood state seen in people with Bipolar Disorder, someone has to have had a period of Mania to be officially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.


What is Mania?  It is, in a sense, the opposite of Depression, but with some additional features.  Common signs and symptoms of mania include:

  • Feeling unusually “high” and optimistic OR extremely irritable

  • Unrealistic, grandiose beliefs about one’s abilities or powers

  • Sleeping very little or much less than normal, but feeling extremely energetic

  • Talking so rapidly that others can’t keep up

  • Racing thoughts; jumping quickly from one idea to the next

  • Being highly distractible and unable to concentrate

  • Impaired judgment and impulsiveness

  • Acting recklessly without thinking about the consequences

  • Delusions and hallucinations (in severe cases)

  • Thinking about sex a lot and acting promiscuously


For more information on symptoms of Depression, click here. Link to blog on depression.


Bipolar Disorder in children and adolescents can present somewhat differently from that in adults.  Its clear, though, in the description of possible manic symptoms in children and teens below that the similarities are many.


During a manic episode kids may:

  • Feel very happy or act silly in a way that's unusual for them

  • Have a very short temper

  • Talk really fast about a lot of different things

  • Have trouble sleeping but not feel tired

  • Have trouble staying focused

  • Talk and think about sex more often

  • Do risky things (drive fast, spend lots of money, have unprotected sex, use drugs or alcohol)

  • Have delusions of grandeur or paranoia

-aggression or temper tantrums.

- have sudden outbursts of anger or crying jags

- show agitation or restlessness

- perceive themselves to be fine, blaming conditions or people in their environment for their difficulties.

-can have psychotic symptoms (hallucinations, delusions)

- may be very difficult to tolerate / work with


Thankfully, Bipolar Disorder, once diagnosed, can be treated successfully with medications and psychotherapy.  There is no cure, but it can be managed (just like any other chronic illness).  Diagnosis may take several months to years, given the cyclic nature of the condition.  Staying on medication and maintaining a good relationship with a trusted psychiatrist are both musts!


A disorder commonly confused with Bipolar Disorder due to a great number of shared symptoms, is Borderline Personality Disorder.  For more on this topic, click here....