Before being diagnosed, I had many misconceptions about bipolar disorder. It is largely why I never entirely saw the signs of my depression until I was able to look at it in hindsight through the glasses of my diagnosis. I incorrectly assumed that those with bipolar disorder always had psychotic episodes where they saw, heard, believed things that weren’t real. My misconceptions about bipolar disorder lead me to believe that it was just mood swings and “crazy” people coming unhinged.
In the end I was wrong. Maybe if I’d known a few more things about the disease I would have been able to spot it sooner. Or maybe not. Below are some of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder and some of the truth behind it.
(Disclosure: I am not a medical professional and am only providing information that I have learned through treatment and research.)
Misconceptions About Bipolar Disorder
Myth: Moods can change on a dime
The biggest of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder is that people who suffer have a Jekyll and Hyde situation. Many people believe that moods will flip like a light switch from mania to depression. This is not true. While people with bipolar disorder can have intense mood swings, not all do. Bipolar disorder presents in most people as cycles or periods of depression and mania/hypomania. These cycles are often extended in time over days, weeks, months, or even sometimes years. It’s the inability to control these cycles and the person’s feeling of being trapped in them that ultimately makes the disease so debilitating.
Myth: Bipolar is the same for everyone who suffers
Another of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder is that there is only one type. In fact, there are currently four different types of bipolar depression that can be diagnosed. Many doctors don’t go as far as to label the specific type since the type doesn’t determine the treatment completely.
- Bipolar I – this is defined as periods of prolonged and intense mania. It can include psychotic episodes.
- Bipolar II – this is defined as having both periods of depression and hypomania/mania (see myth on mania below.) Often depression is the more pronounced period and hypomania appears as more high functioning.
- Cyclothymic disorder – this is defined as numerous cycles of mania/hypomania and depression over the course of two years. This is typically when the severity does not meet the criteria for Type I or Type II
- Bipolar disorder otherwise not specified – this type does not seem to follow a pattern and can’t fit into the other three classifications but can help doctors to understand a direction for treatment when connected with bipolar disorder
Myth: Mania is happiness and productivity
So one of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder is that mania is the opposite of depression. To society depression is defined as sadness and being unproductive. If that’s true then mania must be happiness and productivity.
Well let’s first dispel that depression is sadness (see the article on Difference Between Depression and Sadness.) Depression is hopelessness. So in reality the opposite of that, mania is a complete sense of euphoria and increased activity. This activity isn’t always productive though and euphoria can be destructive. In some it can even present as irritability and anger.
During a manic stage, a person can begin to go into overdrive and begin to engage in behaviors that are risky. This can be personally, professionally, financially, sexually, etc. It is often described by people as feeling indestructible (though it’s not the same for all.) Many can look back on their manic episodes and see the problem behaviors. It can be as emotionally exhausting as depression.
Another of the misconceptions about bipolar disorder is that there is only one type of mania. Hypomania is a less severe form of mania. It can often be seen as very high functioning. This occurs most in people with Bipolar II. People with bipolar II are frequently misdiagnosed with depression because that appears more prominent. Because their hypomania seems productive it is missed.
What separates hypomania from genuine high functioning individuals is its sustainability. Mania in any form is very centered around this idea of being able to accomplish things that promote unhealthy habits. In hypomania this could be not sleeping, racing thoughts, and a need to be moving.
No matter how mania presents its not always productive. It can appear to be but there is a thin line between productive and destructive.
This disease is more common than most people realize and it can be a difficult one to overcome. A diagnosis of bipolar does not mean that a persons life is ruined though. Through proper treatment many can go on to lead fulfilling lives. It’s important to understand the misconceptions about bipolar disorder so that more people can seek the treatment they need.