What's the Difference Between Bipolar Symptoms and Normal Emotions?

Patient Expert

Many people don’t realize that those of us who live with bipolar disorder have a natural range of emotions, just like everyone else. A bipolar diagnosis doesn’t mean that suddenly all high moods are mania and all low moods are depression.

Bipolar disorder exists on a spectrum

Bipolar disorder is a spectrum of moods that covers everything from the lowest of lows (major depression) all the way up to the highest of highs (mania). This range is quite a bit wider than what the average person experiences.

I like to explain the spectrum of bipolar disorder by holding my hands as far apart as possible to indicate how wide the bipolar spectrum is. Then, I move my hands closer together to show how wide the typical range is.

It’s important to understand this to tell the difference between a bipolar symptom and typical mood swings. In both instances, the middle part of the mood spectrum is identical whether or not you’re being treated.

Bipolar disorder and typical moods exist on the same spectrum

Many people believe that bipolar disorder is a different range of feelings altogether. The belief is that the “bipolar spectrum” replaces a person’s “normal spectrum” of moods. This is not the case. Bipolar disorder is a widening of the emotional range that you already have.

People with untreated bipolar are able to travel all the way up to dangerous levels of mania or all the way down to depression. Along the path, there are other mood ranges that are out of the ordinary. Moods like rage, fits of crying, or hypersexuality all exist on this one spectrum. Those of us with bipolar disorder access them more frequently than those who don’t. We are also, often, unable to control our emotions.

Medication to treat bipolar disorder helps shorten that spectrum and close off – as best as possible – certain emotions, moods, and feelings. Once moods like depression, mania, and rage are off the table, we are better able to control ourselves.

The primary difference between a bipolar symptom and typical emotions

When it comes to bipolar disorder, any mood could be a symptom. Any mood that is very high or very low almost certainly is. Extreme moods, like excessive irritability (rather than just being mildly annoyed), are most likely symptoms as well.

It boils down to frequency, intensity, and control. A secondary consideration is cause. For example, if you are flooded with emotion and the urge to cry after hearing about the death of a loved one, that is expected behavior.

Typical moods have understandable causes. When moods start changing suddenly and without apparent cause, it very well could be a bipolar symptom.