Bipolar disorder is a brain condition characterized by shifting moods, energy, and activity levels. It is a complex illness that affects a person’s lifestyle and relationships and requires ongoing care. People with regular mood swings may be seen as ‘suffering from bipolar disorder,’ but such oversimplification can lead to misdiagnosis.
The truth is that the symptoms, severity, medications, and therapies of the different types of bipolar disorder may overlap, which is why it's crucial to understand each of them to ensure a patient gets the right diagnosis and the most appropriate treatment.
Bipolar I Disorder
A person suffering from Bipolar I can experience manic (highs) and depressive (lows) episodes, which can last a few days or several months. During a manic episode, he or she may be hyperactive, irritable and inattentive, have an inflated self-esteem, talk fast, perform extremely pleasurable and/or risky activities with little regard to their consequences (e.g., engaging in unusual sexual behavior, go on spending sprees, etc.), and sleep very little.
On the other hand, he or she may also have very low energy, find it hard to sleep or enjoy life in general, and in worst-case scenarios, contemplate suicide during a depressive episode. In other words, a person with Bipolar I typically exhibits erratic behavior marked by two ‘polar opposite’ moods. He or she experiences intense emotions, have unusual sleep patterns, and suffer from severe mood swings. In most cases, a Bipolar I diagnosis requires immediate care.
Bipolar II Disorder
A person with Bipolar II may exhibit many symptoms of Bipolar I but experience a milder form of mood elevation called hypomania. Typically, he or she experiences at least one or more major depressive episodes and at least one hypomanic episode. But unlike Bipolar I, Bipolar II may not require immediate hospitalization.
Bipolar II lasts for four or more consecutive days, and those suffering from a bout of hypomania may function normally and even feel good at times. They may even be highly productive, leading them to think that nothing’s wrong. In fact, a person with Bipolar II may not recognize the symptoms at all, but family and friends usually can tell.
The manic episodes experienced by a person with Bipolar II may be subtle, but it can turn into a severe mania if untreated.
Cyclothymic Disorder (Cyclothymia)
Sharing some of the characteristics of Bipolar I and II is Cyclothymia. A person with cyclothymia experiences numerous episodes of hypomania and depression for at least 2 years in adults and 1 year in children and adolescents. However, these manic and depressive episodes are less severe compared to Bipolar I and II.
Because its symptoms are milder, cyclothymia may turn into a severe form of depression or be misdiagnosed. In fact, some people suffering from it may not get treatment simply because they don’t think they’re ill.
To treat a person with cyclothymia, it’s necessary to obtain a comprehensive record of his or her moods to get an accurate diagnosis. This may require assistance from a family member or friend who can provide an accurate account of the changes in the patient’s moods.
Whether a person is undergoing a severe or mild form of bipolar disorder, medications and therapy can alleviate symptoms and help them manage their emotional ups and downs better.
That said, treatment varies for each person and it’s important to distinguish based on their individual condition. If you would like to discuss the differences among the types of bipolar disorder, talk to a Meridian Psychiatric Partners mental health professional today.