What To Know About Bipolar Disorder Mood Episodes

Mood episodes can can last as long as a few months.

Emotional highs and lows can be part of the typical human experience—we can all go through emotional shifts during different periods in our lives. For many people, those moods are manageable; but for some people with bipolar disorder, mood fluctuations are more extreme and can significantly disrupt their daily lives.

More serious mood swings—ones that can seriously threaten a person's well-being or impact their daily schedule—are a common characteristic of bipolar disorder. These episodes are known as "mood episodes."

Though there are a few different types of bipolar disorder (bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, and cyclothymic disorder), they all involve changes in a person's mood, energy, and activity.

Find out what a bipolar mood episode looks like including how long it can last, what can trigger it, and the best ways to manage it.

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Are Bipolar Mood Episodes Different From Typical Mood Swings?

The most significant difference between a typical mood swing and a mood episode in bipolar disorder is the length and severity.

Bipolar mood episodes consist of very high highs and extremely low lows for long periods. They require medical treatment from a trained psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker experienced in bipolar disorder management.

What Does a Bipolar Disorder Mood Episode Look Like?

Those with bipolar disorder experience periods of unusually intense emotions. These mood episodes are typically categorized as manic episodes or depressive episodes. They can last as long as several days to a few weeks, with symptoms presenting every day for most of the day.

Manic Episodes

Manic episodes can make a person feel "up" or "high." When in a manic episode, a person may:

  • Sleep less (because they feel like they have a decreased need for sleep)
  • Talk too fast
  • Be distracted or agitated
  • Engage in risky behavior
  • Have racing thoughts

For these symptoms to be technically considered mania, they need to last for at least seven days or be severe enough that the person needs hospital care.

Depressive Episodes

When a person is experiencing a depressive episode, they may feel "down" or hopeless. Depressive episodes can also impact a person's behavior, causing:

  • Changes in sleep and appetite
  • Loss of enjoyment in everyday activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling unable to do simple things
  • Talking slowly
  • Difficulty sleeping

Depressive episodes usually last at least two weeks.

Mixed Episodes

It's also possible for a person with bipolar disorder to experience both manic and depressive feelings in the same episode—that's known as an episode with mixed features. People going through this type of episode may have a combination of symptoms. For instance, they may feel sad or hopeless but also extremely energized.

Bipolar I vs. Bipolar II

While the mood episodes associated with bipolar disorder are also unusual, they may not always be extreme—or as extreme as one might assume. While those with bipolar I disorder tend to have the most intense emotions, people with bipolar II disorder may experience what's known as hypomania, or a less severe form of mania.

These hypomania symptoms may not interfere with a person's daily life, but they may be noticeable enough for family members to realize something is off, like decreased energy or excitement.

What Can Trigger Bipolar Mood Episodes?

The cause of bipolar disorder is likely a combination of different factors like genetics, hormone imbalances, or significant stressors in life. You're more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder if you have an immediate family member who also has the disorder.

It's not fully understood why mood cycling happens in bipolar disorder or what causes drastic mood changes. But there are some common triggers for bipolar mood episodes.

Environmental Factors

Specific environmental factors—like stressful events—may trigger a bipolar mood episode. This may include:

  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Death in the family
  • Illness
  • A difficult relationship
  • Divorce
  • Financial problems


Antidepressant medications may also play a role in mood episodes. While some bipolar patients may take antidepressants to help with their depressive episodes, they can also trigger manic episodes. Medications used to treat ADHD (called stimulants) can also trigger mania.

When antidepressants or stimulants are prescribed to someone with bipolar disorder, healthcare providers may monitor them more closely or pair the drugs with other mood-stabilizing medications.

Sleep Problems

Sleep deprivation may also trigger bipolar mood episodes. Manic episodes often include sleepless periods, making it more difficult for people with bipolar disorder to reach a stable mood.

For that reason, healthcare providers treat manic insomnia with sleep medications to encourage sleep and, as a result, more stable moods.

How Long Can Episodes Last?

There's no hard-and-fast rule about how long bipolar mood episodes last. But most symptoms of mood episodes can last somewhere between one to two weeks or longer. Symptoms also occur for most of the day. Without proper treatment, mood episodes can occur more frequently.

Some people with bipolar disorder experience rapid cycling, in which they shift from high to low mood (or vice versa) quickly over the course of days or even hours. Rapid cycling involves four episodes of either depression or mania that occur within a year and is common in women with bipolar disorder.

Coping With Bipolar Mood Episodes

If you're diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a healthcare provider will work with you to come up with a treatment plan to keep your moods stable.

Lifestyle Changes

For people with bipolar disorder, making small adjustments can make a significant difference. Here are some things you can try:

  • Keep a consistent routine.
  • Participate in physical activity (like jogging, swimming, or bicycling).
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Follow the treatment plan prescribed by your healthcare provider.

These things can help improve symptoms and make it easier to cope with bipolar disorder.


Healthcare providers often prescribe a class of medications called mood stabilizers, such as lithium or valproate, to prevent or reduce mood cycling. In people with severe bipolar disorder that involves delusions or hallucinations, antipsychotic medication can also be paired with mood stabilizers.


Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is another important part of helping keep your mood stable. Working with a therapist can help people with bipolar disorder understand their condition, adhere to their treatment plan, and deal with the fallout of potentially harmful behaviors caused by mood cycling.

Electroconvulsive Therapy

If a patient isn't responding to medication and therapy alone, there are other ways to treat it. For example, a healthcare provider may recommend electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which can be an effective way to treat bipolar disorder.

ECT works by sending electrical currents through a person's brain to alter the brain chemistry and, as a result, improve symptoms of bipolar disorder. ECT can also be extremely helpful in situations in which a rapid treatment response is necessary, such as with those who are at risk of suicide, or are unresponsive.

Recognizing Symptoms

Understanding the symptoms of bipolar disorder is an important way to recognize early signs of mood cycling. Keep a life chart that can help you recognize your mood episodes and check in often with your therapist, a healthcare provider, or a trusted loved one. They can help you work through your mood episodes and make sure a proper treatment plan is in place.

A Quick Review

If you're experiencing fluctuations in moods that are interfering with your ability to function in more than one area of your life, it may be time to ask for help from a healthcare provider.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can diagnose and treat symptoms with medication, but you can also start with your primary care provider or a psychologist. No matter where you begin, reaching out is an important first step for your health and well-being.

If you experience mood episodes related to bipolar disorder, it may help to reduce stress where you can and avoid alcohol or illicit drug use. It's also important to stay on top of the treatment plan recommended by your healthcare provider.

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6 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Bipolar disorder.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Bipolar disorder.

  3. Jain A, Mitra P. Bipolar affective disorder. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  4. American Psychiatric Association. What are bipolar disorders?

  5. Office on Women's Health. Bipolar disorder.

  6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Living well with bipolar disorder.

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