We often hear people saying “he got mood swings, he must be bipolar”, “her mood fluctuations are too much to handle, she is suffering from bipolar perhaps” lot of celebrities have come out openly to talk about their diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Have we ever wondered if bipolar disorder is over diagnosed or misdiagnosed being merely mood swings! Well, mood swings and bipolar disorder are not mutually exclusive, but there is a fairly dramatic difference in mood swings in regular people and those with bipolar disorder.
Lets understand bipolar disorder first.
Bipolar disorder is also known as manic-depressive illness and it is a brain disorder caused due to imbalances in neurotransmitters or to say simply, chemicals in the brain that cause unusual shifts in mood, energy levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
Bipolar disorder is an illness that impacts a person’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions (both mental and physical), as well as behavior. Research findings suggest that people are genetically vulnerable to inheriting the disease if any of their family members have a history of psychiatric illness.
Typically, a person with manic-depression experiences moods that shift from high to low and back again, with varying degrees of severity.
The symptoms are severe enough to lead to impairment in work, social, or academic functioning, and may lead to involuntary hospitalization to prevent harm to self or others.
There are various types of bipolar disorder depending upon varied symptomology nevertheless; all of them involve clear changes in mood, energy, and activity levels.
These moods range from periods of extremely “up,” elated, and energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very sad, “down,” or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). Less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.
A manic episode is generally characterized by:
Feeling like you can do anything, even something unsafe or illegal, Extreme displays of emotion, agitation, decreased need for sleep, inflated self esteem or grandiosity, highly talkative, distractability, dressing flamboyantly, spending money extravagantly, living recklessly having increased sexual desires.
A depressive episode is generally characterized by:
Mood Changes: A long period of feeling sad, hopeless, worthless, worried, guilty or tearful, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities.
Behavioral Changes: Fatigability, problem concentrating, remembering, and making decisions irritability changes in eating, sleeping, or other habits, thinking of death or idea of suicide, or attempting suicide.
The symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe, and the criteria for receiving a diagnosis are quite specific. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time, as well as more extreme mood shifts.
Now let’s understand what defines a mood.
A more general definition of a mood is the current state of the mind, disposition as of the moment. As such, your mood may range from being too happy, to or deep sadness.
An observer may only see the non-verbal signs of your mood through facial expressions or behavior, but it is the individual himself/herself who can basically indicate what his mood truly is.
In regular people, the mood swings usually do not interfere with their lives. If a person is a little bit down or a little bit up, he can still go to work, meet his friends, can still make dinner, or can still take care of your children or house.
On the contrary, when a person has bipolar disorder, the mood swings are such that they disrupt his life.
He can be so depressed that he cannot get out of bed. He can be so depressed that he doesn’t want to live.
On the other side of the continuum, he can be so manic that he spends his family's fortune in a moment.
Mood is usually influenced by a lot of factors, both internally and externally.
For example, a person unable to sleep during the night may be irritable and gloomy in the morning. Individuals may also suffer from mood swings brought about by an external influence, or among females, hormonal changes.
Our mood can change without warning, usually influenced by such internal or external factors. Mood swings are less intense, can go away in days, and cannot disrupt the life of an individual. Though mood swings can be part of bipolar disorder but the difference in mood swings in regular people and mood swings in bipolar disorder, is the severity and duration.
Coping with bipolar disorder:
Bipolar disorder needs immediate attention and help by mental health professionals such as psychiatrist for prescribing medications and a clinical psychologist or therapist to engage the person in psychotherapy.
In severe case the person requires admission in hospital for improving compliance to the treatment. With regard to mood swings in regular people the help can range from simple relaxation exercises, breathing techniques to take better control of the body and then working on cognitions, thinking, feeling aspect of mind.
With prolonged stress and poor handling our minds become susceptible to perceive everything overwhelming and before we realize we get into a pattern of cyclic emotions which come flooding and we find ourselves hard to take charge.
Making smaller goals, appreciating positives in us and environment, taking a break from usual routine, and evaluating our emotions for what they actually are can help in controlling swings.
A good time management, cherishing our relationships and doing mindfulness meditation can help us deal with mood swings a great deal.
M.Phil, Ph.D Clinical Psychology