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Bipolar is certainly different than typical ‘moodiness’ — yet, some people don’t understand this. Luckily, you can learn how to break it down for them.

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Moodiness vs. Mood Disorder

You have probably heard the following: “Aren’t we all a bit bipolar? Everyone has moods! Why put a label on it?”

The answer, born out of research and, for many of us, personal experience, is that there is an enormous difference between moodiness and the mood disorder called bipolar disorder. But how do you explain this to people?

Here is how I converse rationally when people tell me we are all a “bit bipolar.” Here is an example of a script I use when the topic comes up at a party.

“Come on, Julie! Everyone is bipolar in some way!”

My answer:

“It does look like that on the surface. We all have emotions and we certainly all get moody, but I can share a few things with you that show how bipolar disorder isn’t just moodiness. Are you interested?”

They always say yes because I do believe most people are curious and want to learn.

Depression and Bipolar Forms of Depression

I then say, “First, let me give you some background on bipolar. Even though it’s called a mood disorder, it really is a lot more. People with bipolar definitely have the mood you are probably used to — depression. Feeling low, tired, hopeless, helpless, sad, maybe crying. We know about this mood and all people can go through this. This means that, yes, all people can experience depression. 

But did you know there is also a form of depressions that is restless, irritated, filled with irrational thoughts, anger, and sometimes aggression? Most people will say that a person is mean, cranky, touchy, or prickly to describe this person. So, this can be in the general population, of course. As a result, you can say that being moody, unhappy, and mean is a phase we might all go through. 

But then there is the kind of depression that many of us with bipolar have that takes over every fiber of our being, no matter what is happening in our lives. In other words, it’s just there. We can’t shake it. The depression says things to us and tells us we are worthless and hopeless, and it often turns into suicidal thinking where we ruminate about death … a lot. Eventually, we think that we should die or that we want to die. When this happens, you can see how a mood that we might call depression, such as sadness or loneliness or hopelessness, has now become something far more serious. This is when we are in the world of mood disorders and have to see it as more of an illness as compared to a reaction to something negative that happened in life. This kind of depression moves us to illness territory. Especially if there is no outward reason the person should be so depressed.

At this point, people are really interested! They have rarely thought about the progression of moods and that moodiness tends to be milder and explainable either by circumstance or personality. When it comes to bipolar depression, we have left the real world that makes sense and sunken into a world controlled by brain chemicals.

I then say this: “If it stops here, just with the depression, possible irritation, and some anger, restlessness, and sadness, then it can still be seen as a life problem by many. This is dangerous. It’s confusing, and the person doesn’t usually know what is happening. A lot of therapy is suggested and people are asked: What’s wrong! You have so much to live for! This is why we have to take any deep depression or suicidal talk very seriously. 

Mania Is the Distinguishing Feature of Bipolar Disorder

But bipolar is not just about depression. We have a symptom called mania that I can assure you is not shared by others in the general pubic. So, if you say: “Julie, doesn’t everyone get depressed? Don’t we all have low moods?” I would say: “Yep. I’ve seen it. But I have never seen someone without bipolar get manic. Mania is the symptom that makes this illness what it is. Serious, chemical depression can be missed and perceived as a personal problem. Not with mania. Mania is the other side of the bipolar coin. It is about energy, and bipolar is the only illness in the world with this particular symptom. 

The first thing to remember about mania is that no matter what mood the person is in, you will always see an increase in energy that you can measure against the person’s normal energy or the regular energy of the general public.

I won’t go into too many details here, but know that mania always means a person needs less sleep and isn’t tired and that their energy level is way higher than regular circumstances would create. This is why people with mania fit so well into the entertainment industry, such as being on stage, and into the high-energy-level job world, such as being a stockbroker.

Mania is the single thing about bipolar that stands out and makes the illness different from any other illness on the planet.

I can explain more about mania. It has two levels, hypomania and full-blown mania, and two types, euphoric (“this feels great” mania) and dysphoric (“this all feels awful and I want to smash my fist into a wall or drive my car to another state at 100 miles an hour”). For now, just know that because of mania, the answer to the question:” Julie, doesn’t everyone have a form of bipolar disorder?” is an absolute No. And, guys, when you then add the psychosis that is often present in people with bipolar, you really have a different situation.

To recap: Do we all have depression behaviors? Yes. Do we all get excited and have high energy sometimes? Yes! But do we as a general population have noticeable signs of mania? Absolutely not. This is why well-trained healthcare professionals can diagnose bipolar so quickly.

Moving From Curiosity to Understanding

Once I give this explanation, I hear about the family members and partners who have mania, and the discussion becomes much more realistic and professional. When people learn about mania and especially the possibility of psychosis, they are then more open to learning about the illness instead of saying we all have a form of bipolar disorder.


UPDATED: Originally posted January 25, 2018

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