12 Signs Your Mood Swings Could Actually Be Bipolar Disorder

Whether we blame it on hormones, the weather, or an exhausting job, we all have mood swings every now and again. There’s a big difference, however, between your daily highs and lows and bipolar disorder. Also known as manic-depressive illness, this disorder causes significant mood shifts that also affect your energy and ability to do everyday tasks, the National Institute of Mental Health reminds us.

Some cases are more severe than others, but one thing remains consistent — they’re all characterized by having a mix of manic and depressive episodes. It’s a lot different than your average mood switch. Think you may be affected? Here are a few signs it’s not all in your head.

1. You’ve been diagnosed with depression — but you don’t think that’s it

African American woman looking depressed

It might not be depression after all. | iStock.com/Rawpixel Ltd

Bipolar disorder can be extremely hard to pinpoint — Russ Federman, Ph.D., for Psychology Today says it usually takes 10 to 12 years for an accurate diagnosis. The first time you see a doctor, you’re presenting yourself to them as you are that day, as well as explaining your symptoms. If you’re in a depressive state the day you enter the office, you’re likely to get a depression diagnosis instead of a bipolar one. It can take a few weeks to a few months for a bipolar person to move out of one mood and into another, too.

Federman notes it’s very common for those with bipolar to first be given a diagnosis of depression, or even ADHD. If your mood severely fluctuates and it’s not always consistent with the disorder you’ve been told you have, take note.

2. You abuse drugs and alcohol

Friends at a Christmas party

Many people with bipolar disorder also deal with addiction. | iStock.com

Switching between periods of mania and depression can seriously take a toll on your psyche. For this reason, DuelDiagnosis.org explains bipolar disorder and addiction are closely related. This could be because those with the disorder turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to quell their mood swings. Of course, substance abuse never solves anything — and it can actually make depression and mania even worse.

If you seek comfort in substances as a way of controlling your emotions, make sure to tell your doctor so they can help you.

3. You go through periods of anger and irritability…

business executive yelling at two employees

Periods of anger could be a sign of bipolar disorder. | iStock.com/imtmphoto

Have you been feeling down, but know the feeling will fade sooner or later? You could be in what’s known as the depressive state of bipolar disorder. We’re all familiar with what depression looks like — sadness and the inability to get out of bed come to mind. But this isn’t always what it looks like. Some people with a bipolar diagnosis experience irritability and anger over misery, MentalHelp.net explains.

During a depressive state, it’s common to feel lethargic and generally worthless, and you might also lose interest in activities you once loved. Whether you feel this way all the time or just every so often, it’s important to notify a mental health professional.

4. … followed by periods of feeling on top of the world

young man piggybacking his girlfriend

Periods of intense happiness could be mania. | iStock.com/Tijana87

If you’ve never experienced a manic episode, it might not sound all that bad. After all, what’s better than feeling like you’re king of the world? Unfortunately, bipolar mania can be quite off-putting, or even dangerous. WebMD explains experiencing weeks where you feel hyper-talkative, egotistical, and like nothing in the world can stop you is a sign. But, know this on-top-of-the-universe feeling doesn’t last forever — it’s just part of the bipolar cycle.

5. You’ve had symptoms since your early 20s

teenage girls with smartphone taking selfie

Symptoms tend to occur pretty early in life. | iStock.com/dolgachov

Maybe you’ve been feeling this way for a decade, but can you pinpoint when it all started? Was it when you were in high school or early college? PsychCentral explains the average onset is during your early 20s, but it can start even earlier than this. For every five people with a diagnosis, one of them has presented symptoms before age 20.

Here’s something else interesting — while the disorder presents itself equally among men and women, men are more likely to have a manic episode first, and women are more likely to start with a depressive episode.

6. You have another psychiatric condition

Teenage Girl Sitting On bathroom floor next to scale

It’s common for those with bipolar disorder to have more than one psychiatric condition. | iStock.com/Highwaystarz-Photography

While bipolar disorder can sometimes present itself as a different mental illness, it’s also pretty common to have more than one psychiatric condition. The National Institute of Mental Health says many with a bipolar diagnosis also have anxiety or eating disorders, or they may even show signs of psychosis.

If you’re having psychotic symptoms during a manic stage, you might believe you have superhuman powers . Alternatively, having one during a depressive state could leave you thinking you committed a crime. If psychosis isn’t occurring during your episodes, maybe you have a preoccupation with food instead. This review states many bipolar adults are prone to binge-eating or bulimia. More research is needed to confirm this, but the evidence is mounting.

7. You have racing thoughts

Stressed woman with a headache

You can have racing thoughts during mania or depression. | iStock.com/SIphotography

It’s common to experience racing thoughts during a manic episode. This is a lot different than hearing voices in your head — a common sign of schizophrenia. Verywell explains these racing thoughts can be snippets of movies, music, or conversations you’ve had. Whatever the thoughts may be, they’re unrelenting.

While it’s common to experience this feeling during manic stages, you can also feel like your thoughts are crowding in on you during a depressive phase. During mania, many people enjoy the constant flow of thinking. The depressive phase, however, is much less enjoyable, and the thoughts are likely to feel more like a nuisance.

9. You’re either sleeping all the time or not at all

man asleep on his desk

Those with bipolar disorder tend to have inconsistent sleep patterns. | iStock.com

We often feel wiped due to lack of sleep, but the usual Monday afternoon drowsiness is much different than what people with bipolar disorder experience. WebMD explains those with this disorder are likely to oversleep during depressive episodes. And for every three out of four people with bipolar, sleep problems are a sign a manic period is about to begin.

10. Every few weeks, your mood totally shifts

Couple fighting in the kitchen

Do you feel like your mood consistently changes? | iStock.com/oneinchpunch

As far as how long bipolar episodes last, it really depends on the person. However, if you experience extreme highs and lows that switch off every three months or less, you could be  going through rapid cycling. The Mood Disorders Association of Ontario explains this occurs when you have four or more mood episodes during the last 12 months.

Rapid cycling is much more common in women, too — 70 to 90% of those who experience this are females. If you don’t have this aspect of bipolar disorder, then your mood episodes are likely to last longer than this. In a piece for The Huffington Post, Dr. Matt Goldenberg says drastic mood changes multiple time per day could signal a personality disorder.

11. It’s hard for you to concentrate

Young woman sitting at table doing assignments in college library.

Bipolar disorder can make it hard to concentrate. | iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Bipolar disorder can look a lot like ADHD — they both share the inability to concentrate as a symptom. During depressive episodes, bipolar individuals may have difficulty focusing on tasks they need to get done for school or work, says Everyday Health. Alternatively, CBS News explains a manic episode can lead to racing thoughts that make it hard to concentrate on just one task at a time.

12. You have severe shifts in your energy

Beautiful woman in red

Severe changes in your energy levels could signify a manic or depressive episode. | iStock.com/SanneBerg

Here’s something to consider — the rapid mood changes in those with bipolar disorder may not feel like shifts between happiness and sadness. Instead, they may actually feel like shifts between periods of high energy and low energy. The experts at Mentalhelp.net say swinging between high and low energy states is actually more common than having a mood overhaul.

If you think about it, there is a lot of correlation between your energy and your mood. When you have a lot of energy, you’re more likely to feel upbeat and happy, and having low energy can make you feel sad and unmotivated. Just know your severe energy shifts could signify mania or depression.

Risk factors

Family and friends posing for a picture

You can’t beat genetics. | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

Think you may be at risk for developing this disorder? There’s one thing for sure — genetics have a lot to do with it. Psych Central explains bipolar disorder often runs in families. If your know family members have this mental illness but you haven’t had any signs or symptoms yourself, you should also know severe stress or a major event in your life could potentially trigger bipolar disorder.

Genes aside, there may also be something going on biologically. Researchers think those with the condition have abnormalities in their serotonin and dopamine levels. Additionally, many people who develop full-blown bipolar disorder later on have a much milder form of the condition at first.

Treatment options

man in therapy

Therapy can help. | iStock.com

There’s no single test to determine if you have bipolar disorder. Instead, your doctor will ask you a series of questions and, from there, decide if you have the condition. See why it’s so difficult to correctly diagnose?

Once you’re diagnosed, it’s likely your doctor will prescribe you a mood stabilizer, the International Bipolar Foundation says. Therapy is also key in helping to manage symptoms, as you can learn tips on regulating your mood and energy levels as well as how to better manage stress and repair relationships.

There’s also a lot you can do on your own — maintaining a regular sleep schedule, exercising regularly, and avoiding drugs and alcohol can do wonders in keeping mood swings at bay.

Supporting a friend with bipolar disorder

smiling young woman at a cafe table

Need to help a friend or loved one? Here’s what you can do. | iStock.com/jacoblund

Maybe you don’t have this mental condition yourself, but you might know a friend who does. Because of the drastic mood swings that are associated with the disorder, it can be tough to know what to say or do for a friend in need. But WebMD has a few suggestions.

You should first let your friend know you’re available to talk. Opening the lines of communication and offering a safe space to express themselves is likely to really help. You can also try doing activities together — ask them to go out to dinner or go for a walk with you. They might be inclined to pull away from their friends and family because of their disorder, so extending an offer like this can be very comforting.

It’s wise to also have an emergency plan in place. Talk to them about the steps you should take if their symptoms become severe. It’s never a bad idea to know what to do if they need professional help.