10 Signs of Bipolar Disorderby Therese Borchard Health Writer & Patient Advocate
Despite increased awareness of what bipolar disorder is and how it affects people's lives, often thanks to movies and shows like Silver Linings Playbook, Homeland, and Michael Clayton, there are still strong stereotypes that influence how we define and recognize the condition in ourselves and in loved ones. That's why we're recapping 10 common signs of bipolar disorder, including symptoms of both mania and depression that you don’t want to ignore.
Decreased need for sleep
The average person is delighted by the excessive energy of a manic or hypomanic cycle, the additional hours in her day courtesy of a short night. If you or a loved one is functioning well (with no real signs of fatigue or cognitive impairment) on four to five hours of sleep for weeks on end—or on significantly less sleep than a previous sleep schedule—this could point to mania.
Racing thoughts and accelerated speech
You can’t catch your thoughts because they are rolling off the teleprompter screen in your brain too quickly to read — resulting in a lot of babble that doesn’t make sense to the person in front of you. Now compound the jumbled thoughts with speech that is so accelerated that you appear to be on speed. Get the picture? That's a sign of mania.
Restlessness and agitation
Imagine someone who sits down at a restaurant for only two minutes before he is agitated by something and needs to move. The next table is too loud. The waitress is too slow. His chair is too wobbly. Or he decides he isn’t in the mood for Mexican. One red flag of bipolar mania is the inability to sit still and chill, i.e., a really cranky, highly sensitive adult with the attention of a fly.
A burst of confidence is always my telltale sign that I might be manic — when I feel as though what I write is New York Times bestseller material. Truthfully, the absence of insecurity, for me, indicates some inflation of confidence. But if you suddenly think you are endowed with special superpowers that will change history by tomorrow afternoon, you may want to confess that opinion to a psychiatrist, because such self-assessments could indicate a manic episode of bipolar disorder.
Impulsive and risky behavior
Most people are aware of this symptom of mania: the shopping spree, the extramarital affair, the motorcycle trip across the country. However, what’s impulsive for one human being is completely different for another. If you suddenly want to ditch your career as an IT guy in middle America to become a gourmet chef at a New York City bistro, or buy three log cabins to renovate in upper Michigan, be careful — this may be a sign of mania.
In life, there is sadness and grief and sorrow. They aren’t fun, but they don’t disable a person. Hopelessness, on the other hand, has no room for optimism — cracks of light that sneak through the darkness. There is a moroseness about hopelessness that family members and friends can easily detect: expressionless eyes, hollow cheeks, an absence of personality. The presence of hope distinguishes sadness from depression.
Withdrawal from family and friends and lack of interest in activities
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), apathy toward activities once enjoyed and withdrawal from familiar people, places, and things can indicate the down cycle of bipolar disorder. Depressed folks are no longer energized by music, art, sports, or any pursuit that once generated a sense of purpose and meaning. They isolate and want to be alone.
Change in appetite and sleep
Some people pig out on junk food when they are depressed. Others pick at their food with no interest in eating. Some can’t get out of bed, while others lie awake all night. Significant changes in both appetite (and weight) and sleep patterns — no matter how they manifest — can indicate a depressive cycle of bipolar disorder. Keep track of both, and if they don’t regulate within two weeks, consider getting help.
Problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making
During a manic phase, bipolar folks may feel more efficient with their extra energy and decreased need for sleep. However, the crash is inevitable, resulting in a depression that cancels out the superman effect. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a depressed cycle brings problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making, which can impair job performance and cause mistakes.
Preoccupation with death and thoughts of suicide
Finally, please don’t ignore obsessions about death — for example, thinking about the deaths of your ancestors, wondering when you will die a natural death, reading obituaries in the paper, or any suicidal ideations — even hypothetical thoughts of how you would end your life. Seek help immediately.