Symptoms Mistaken for Bipolar Disorder

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

I wonder how many times the 'do I have bipolar?' question, or one like it, has appeared in our Question and Answer's Section?

There's lots of information on about the signs, symptoms and lived experience of people with bipolar, but maybe some people would find it beneficial to turn things around a little and discuss what bipolar is not? In this post I've made a little list in order to attempt to answer that very question:

Mood Swings: Just because you have mood swings doesn't mean you have bipolar. Everyone has good and bad days and most of us have experience of days that are good, bad, good again - you get the picture. The point is mood swings are common. If they aren't especially intense, distressing or noticeable, it's likely they are nothing to do with bipolar.

Psychosis: Some people get confused between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia is characterized by very prominent psychotic symptoms that include delusions, hallucinations and disordered thinking. Moods in people with schizophrenia tend to be blunted, whereas in people with bipolar they are much more intense. Psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia do not appear at the same time as a hypomanic, manic or depressed episode as they do in bipolar disorder.

Schizoaffective Disorder: No, bipolar disorder is not another term for schizoaffective disorder. Yes, both are associated in some fashion with mood and psychotic symptoms. If psychotic symptoms appear in someone with bipolar it will only be in the presence of mood symptoms. In schizoaffective disorder the symptoms of psychosis will be present during mood symptoms and for a period of at least two weeks after.

Personality Disorder: People with a borderline personality disorder do experience mood swings. However, they are not as intense as those experienced by people with bipolar and neither do they last as long. It is far more common for people with borderline personality disorder to find that their moods occur as a reaction to situations and circumstances.

Substance Misuse: It's true that certain drugs can evoke altered states that mimic bipolar episodes. Once the substance wears off, so do the symptoms.

Medical Conditions: Because certain medical conditions like hypothyroidism or MS can mimic some of the symptoms of bipolar it's important to rule these out.

Are there more? Quite possibly. As ever, I leave it to you the good readers and contributors, to add their own views and perspectives to this topic.