13 Bipolar Disorder Symptoms You Need to Know, According to Psychologists

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness—here are the telltale symptoms to watch out for.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), bipolar disorder, aka manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, ranging from high-highs and low-lows. This mental instability can make it difficult for an individual to carry out day-to-day tasks.

While bipolar disorder is not common—less than 3 percent of the population experience it every year and 4.4 percent in their lifetime—over 80 percent of cases are classified as “severe.” If untreated, bipolar disorder often worsens, and can have an ultimately devastating impact on an individual’s life.

Unsure what qualifies as bipolar symptoms? Here are 13 signs that your or a loved ones' mood issues may actually signal bipolar disorder.

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Great mood

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  • Bipolar disorder is characterized by up-and-down episodes of mania and depression. During a manic phase, some patients can have a total break from reality.
  • But hypomania, which is also a symptom of the disorder, is a high-energy state in which a person feels exuberant but hasn’t lost his or her grip on reality.
  • "Hypomania can be a pretty enjoyable state, really," Dr. Bearden says. A person’s mood can be elevated, they may have a lot of energy and creativity, and they may experience euphoria. This is the "up" side of bipolar disorder that some people with the condition actually enjoy—while it lasts.
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Inability to complete tasks

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Having a house full of half-completed projects is a hallmark of bipolar disorder. People who can harness their energy when they are in a hypomanic phase can be really productive.

Those who can’t often go from task to task, planning grand, unrealistic projects that are never finished before moving on to something else.

"They can be quite distractible and may start a million things and never finish them," says Don Malone, MD, the director of the Center for Behavioral Health and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio.

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Complicated sex lives

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Bipolar disorder can have a seriously negative impact on individual’s sex life. “Because people who suffer from bipolar disorder live in what I call expensive emotional states, they typically have expansive and complicated sex and relational lives,” Dr. Hokemeyer explains.

This includes engaging in a variety of sexual expressions including sexual fluidity (a concept that includes bisexuality) or S&M. He points out, however, they may also go to the other extreme and completely avoid sex.

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A person who is in a bipolar depressive state is going to look just like someone who has regular depression. "They have the same problems with energy, appetite, sleep, and focus as others who have 'plain old depression,'" Dr. Malone says.

Unfortunately, typical antidepressants alone don't work well in patients who are bipolar. They can even make people cycle more frequently, worsening their condition, or send someone into a break-with-reality episode.

"Antidepressants can be downright dangerous in people with bipolar because they can send them into mania," he says.

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  • Some people with this condition suffer from "mixed mania," where they experience symptoms of mania and depression at the same time. During this state, they are often extremely irritable.
  • Everyone has bad days, which is one reason this kind of bipolarity is much harder to recognize.
  • "We are all irritable or moody sometimes," Dr. Bearden says. "But in people with bipolar disorder it often becomes so severe that it interferes with their relationships—especially if the person is saying, 'I don’t know why I’m so irritable…I can’t control it.'"
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Rapid speech

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Some people are naturally talkative; we all know a motormouth or Chatty Cathy. But "pressured speech" is one of the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder.

This kind of speech occurs when someone is really not in a two-way conversation, Dr. Bearden says. The person will talk rapidly and if you try to speak, they will likely just talk over you.

They will also sometimes jump around to different topics. "What’s kind of a red flag is when it is atypical for the person to talk like this," doing it only when they are in a manic cycle but not at other times, she says.

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Loss of time

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Family Therapist Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, points out that many people with bipolar disorder find that it seriously impairs their concept of time. “Deadlines in appointments become ethereal, as does the ability to stick to a schedule,” he explains.

Ultimately, this can have a negative impact on their relationships with others, their careers, and even their ability to parent. “For people who suffer from polar disorder, time and its passage is an elusive construct.”

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Trouble at work

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People with this disorder often have difficulty in the workplace because so many of their symptoms can interfere with their ability to show up for work, do their job, and interact productively with others.

In addition to having problems completing tasks, they may have difficulty sleeping, irritability, and an inflated ego during a manic phase, and depression at other times, which causes excessive sleeping and additional mood problems.

A lot of the workplace problems can be interpersonal ones, Dr. Malone says.

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Alcohol or drug abuse

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About 50% of people with bipolar disorder also have a substance abuse problem, particularly alcohol use, Dr. Bearden says.

Many people will drink when they are in a manic phase to slow themselves down, and use alcohol to improve their mood when they are depressed.

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Erratic behavior

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When they are in a manic phase, people with bipolar disorder can have an inflated self-esteem.

"They feel grandiose and don't consider consequences; everything sounds good to them," Dr. Malone says.

Two of the most common types of behavior that can result from this are spending sprees and unusual sexual behavior. "I have had a number of patients who have had affairs who never would have done that if they weren't in a manic episode…during this episode they exhibited behavior that is not consistent with what they would do normally," he says.

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center of attention
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While everyone needs to dream big and shoot for the stars, people who suffer from bipolar disorder suffer from a delusional grandiosity. This can distract them from pursuing tangible accomplishments, according to Dr. Hokemeyer. “So a person who enjoys acting will only take the stage if they get the best part in the most esteemed theater company,” he says.

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Sleep problems

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People with this condition often have sleep problems. During a depression phase, they may sleep too much, and feel tired all the time.

During a manic phase, they may not sleep enough—but still never feel tired.

Even with just a few hours of sleep each night, they may feel great and have lots of energy.

Dr. Bearden says staying on a regular sleep schedule is one of the first things she recommends for bipolar patients.

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Flight of ideas

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This symptom may be something that is hard to recognize, but it occurs frequently when someone is in a manic phase. People feel like their mind is racing and that they can't control or slow down their thoughts.

This flight of ideas sometimes occurs with pressured speech.

People with bipolar may not recognize or admit that their mind is racing out of control, says Dr. Bearden.

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