7 People on What Their Bipolar Disorder Symptoms Are Really Like

Learning about their experiences can give more insight about the disorder from a more personal perspective.

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition in which a person has extreme changes in their emotions, energy, and, at times, general functioning. The disorder will affect an estimated 4.4% of adults in the U.S. at some point in their lives.

Though there are common bipolar symptoms like mood and energy changes, every person with the disorder will not experience it the same way.

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Common Bipolar Disorder Symptoms

The presence of extreme mood episodes or symptoms is a hallmark sign of bipolar disorder. The episodes or symptoms can be manic, depressive, or a mixture of both:

  • Mania: Having an elevated or irritable mood for a period lasting at least a week
  • Hypomania: Having manic symptoms that are less severe and last a minimum of four days
  • Depression: Having feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or indifference

Those periods of mood changes can affect the person's behavior, another major part of bipolar disorder. For example, during a manic episode, people will have constant behavior or energy that is goal-directed and causes major impairment. They may talk fast, be more active than usual, or have racing thoughts.

The mood and behavioral symptoms must be out of the ordinary for a person and not caused by another mental health condition.

Living With Bipolar Disorder

The following seven people with bipolar disorder shared their experiences with Health to help dispel some myths and misconceptions about the illness and its types.

Mood Swings and Triggers

“I have a mood disorder that I’m trying to figure out how to navigate every day."—Kaity C.

I live with bipolar disorder, type II. I really have to take life day by day. Some days, I feel on top of the world, and others, I want to lay in bed all day or feel super moody. For the most part, my mood is stable, but there are days that feel completely debilitating.

I, along with so many others, have triggers that can almost always turn my day on its head. Unfortunately, most of the time, I don't even know what my triggers are until they happen, and by that point, it's usually too late to save them.

When I have a mood episode, I don't realize that I have lost control of my emotions until I'm deep inside an episode, and it's too late to turn back. Typically, my mood escalates until I'm at the peak and really angry, but once I come to and realize what's happening, I spiral downward and get extremely sad and self-deprecating—asking myself questions like, "Why me?"

I've been in intensive treatment twice in my life. The inpatient facility I was at in Santa Fe six years ago saved my life. Now, I go to therapy and see a psychiatrist regularly.

Finding both the right therapist and the right psychiatrist is key. There has to be a relationship and synergy there, or it just won't work. I've jumped around with psychiatrists a lot, just looking for the right one, but luckily, I've been seeing my therapist for nearly six years. She's a keeper.

I also look to working out. Running and kickboxing are my go-to's. Meditating also helps me—I read "10% Happier" by Dan Harris, and it changed my life and whole view on meditation. Just finding things that relax me and make me happy, like reading and cooking, are really important to me.

One stigma I want to bust is that people suffering from bipolar are not crazy. People have a tendency to call angry people "bipolar" and throw that word around like it means nothing.

I'm not an angry person. I just have a mood disorder that I'm trying to figure out how to navigate every day. I'm a work in progress, and I always will be because there's no "cure" for bipolar—or any mood disorder, for that matter—but I'm trying my best.

Care and Patience

“I wish people would have more patience and empathy.”—Jaime Lowe

My moods fluctuate, for sure, but doesn't everyone suffer from moods fluctuating? Are my moods more severe? Maybe. 

I've had pretty intense reactions to hormonal changes, like my menstrual cycle, sometimes instigating severe depression and anxiety. I've had deep anxiety from jobs I've held in the past and less from others. Sometimes, I can't tell if my moods are a result of being mentally ill or from the exponential other variables that life presents.

This is why psychiatric care is so difficult. It's hard to pinpoint. I'd say, day to day, I'm usually doing OK!

I respond extremely well to medication—or, at least, I have since I was diagnosed, which was 26 years ago. Mood episodes that can be categorized as mania or depression happen fairly infrequently. I've only had two extreme episodes, but they both derailed or rerouted my life.

When I'm manic, I'm basically wilding out—a technical, medical term. I believe I'm all-powerful, related to Jesus, and that I'm a high-performing mathematician. I suffer from grand delusions and an uninhibited quality that makes everything in life glitter with an indescribable sheen.

The problem is the mania is directly followed by deep depression. For me, I have to crawl out from the surreality and figure out how to function again. How to take meds again. How to live again.

I wish people would look at anyone suffering from anything and have more patience and empathy. That person is going through some stuff, and they need help, not anger, or at the very worst, to be ignored. I think that's the ultimate and larger problem, that the disorder is very nearly impossible to self-identify and often difficult for people close to or around the sufferer to spot.

Lowe is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and author of "Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing my Mind."

Manic Episodes

“I see manic symptoms being praised in our work culture.”—Natasha Walton

I was diagnosed with bipolar spectrum when I was 28. I specifically have cyclothymia, a milder form of bipolar.

I worked in tech startups for the past 10 years, and my manic tendencies earned me much praise and promotion in that stressful, 24/7 environment. For example, my ability to get angry about business setbacks showed how seriously I was taking my job and helped me develop camaraderie with my coworkers.

For the first five years, I didn't seem to notice the pain. The high of success numbed me to the physical downsides I was experiencing. After my first major setback, the pain really set in.

I wasn't able to bounce back after a demotion. I struggled to work under a new authority figure, and my bitter attitude kept me from thriving at the company. My sense of failure felt unbearable.

After a hypomanic episode—a less severe manic period—complete worthlessness kept me from getting out of bed. Constant anxiety made my stomach feel like it was going to cave in. Lack of sleep and bad nutrition kept my mind fuzzy, and I couldn't think straight.

I had to overhaul my lifestyle and step away from that career path in order to recover. With those changes and several types of therapy, my symptoms are completely managed at this point.

I see manic symptoms such as grandiosity, racing thoughts, and hyper-productivity being praised in our work culture without regard for the pain and suffering that accompanies them. I think many people are afraid to treat these symptoms for fear of being less successful or "losing their edge."

Bipolar Type 1, in Remission, and Talk Therapy

“I’m no longer the emotional equivalent of earthquakes and monsoons.”—Marya Hornbacher

My current diagnosis classifies my illness as "bipolar type 1, in remission." While my mood, like most people's moods, varies at least a little from day to day, depending on both external circumstances and my own physiology, I don't experience the extremes of mood that I did years ago when my bipolar was less effectively managed.

In fact, I haven't had a major episode of depression or mania for at least a decade.

I probably experience a greater range of highs and lows than people without a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and the shifts in my mood can happen quickly, but nowadays, I'm quite acclimated to it. It's no longer the emotional equivalent of earthquakes and monsoons. Now, it's more like the regular shifts in weather.

Bipolar, for me—and actually for many women over 40—tends to express itself more as a nagging sense of the blues, anxiety, and tension, which is very different from discrete, diagnostically specific, clinically acute depression or mania.

Talk therapy is enormously beneficial for me to attain and maintain health, and it is still believed to be a vital component of treatment for most people with mental health concerns.

There is a whole range of talk therapy approaches. I work with an EMDR [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing] therapist who specializes in my areas of concern. Beyond that, I use a number of evidence-based supporting treatment approaches, including exercise, light therapy, and meditation.

Working, volunteering, and engaging with the community are all critical elements of recovery for me, as well. All of this sounds really time-consuming and daunting, I think. Actually, these are all just small adaptations that work together to make life with bipolar very manageable.

I want people to know that bipolar is not a dead end or a death sentence. Our bodies and brains, as well as our emotional lives and mental states, are always changing and always in flux. There is always something more we can do to take care of ourselves. Just as we have the capacity for the disorder, we have the capacity to attain balance, wellness, and heath.

Hornbacher is the author of "Madness: A Bipolar Life."

Long-Term Stability and Traumatic Events

“Our brains get sick just like other parts of our bodies get sick and need treatment.”—Jennifer Marshall

My day-to-day is very stable. I have type 1 bipolar, so my risk is that a hypomania mood could turn into a manic episode which could quickly lead to psychosis and thus require hospitalization.

I had my longest period of stability between the spring of 2010 and the fall of 2017. Because I am committed to my medication and protecting my sleep, my two main triggers, I am able to experience long-term stability.

Even with the most proactive recovery plan, traumatic events can catapult a person into mania, which is what I experienced when I lost a loved one unexpectedly to a heart attack.

My manic episodes tend to start off with me feeling as though I'm being super productive at work and home when, in reality, it's just the thoughts in my head spinning so fast I can't keep up.

Often during mania, I feel as though I'm living whatever major story is happening in the news. One episode occurred during flooding in Houston. I thought our home was flooding, and we needed to get to higher ground.

Also, my thoughts become extremely jumbled, and I'm not able to make sense of the situation once the psychosis takes over.

It's scary losing control of the thoughts in your mind. Having experienced it five times now, I know that it won't last forever and that once I get to the hospital and receive the proper medication, I will be OK. It's my goal, obviously, to avoid hospitalization and to stay healthy, but some things are out of my control, such as the death of a loved one.

When I was first diagnosed, I thought I might never be able to have children. The reality is that with the right support, I was able to have two beautiful, amazing kids.

My husband and I believe in being open with our kids about my illness, and because of my work leading a mental health awareness nonprofit, I have been talking about mental health issues with my children for the past five years.

I believe the sooner we are able to have discussions with our children about mental illness, the earlier they will learn that mental health issues should be treated the same as physical illnesses. Our brains get sick just like other parts of our bodies get sick and need treatment. This is how we'll raise a more accepting society.

Marshall is the co-founder and executive director of "This Is My Brave."

Appropriate Treatment

“None of us asked to be bipolar.”—Natasha Tracy

On a day-to-day basis, I battle both bipolar symptoms and medication side effects. On the bipolar side, there are mood symptoms to concern me with.

For example, I'm often in a mixed mood where symptoms of both hypomania and depression are present at the same time. I can easily fall into depressive symptoms where I cry and hug myself while still having copious amounts of energy to burn, which I do, partially by talking to myself constantly. I literally cannot stop.

As for the side effects, the medication cocktail I'm on is worsening my anxiety quite a bit. I deal with this on top of the bipolar symptoms, and it is very hard. I find that my own set of coping techniques is absolutely essential to getting through the day. Obtaining the skills provided by cognitive behavioral therapy, which I believe to be very helpful for anyone with a mental illness. For me, a medication cocktail is critical to my survival.

I wish people understand those with appropriately-treated bipolar disorder are not violent, unpredictable, or unreliable. We truly are like everyone else, but with a serious health condition. I wish people understood bipolar disorder is a disease of the brain and not a personal failing.

Believe me, if it were simply a matter of thinking your way out of the illness or just trying really hard, we wouldn't be struggling and suffering as we do. None of us asked to be bipolar, and none of us want to have a brain illness, but we do. Nonetheless, we are still special, wonderful, and loveable.

Tracy is the author of "Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar."

Bipolar Type II Disorder and Suicide

“It’s not what defines me. I just happen to suffer from it.”—Anonymous

I have late-onset bipolar type II and was diagnosed in my 40s. There's a raging history of bipolar I and II in my family. Everyone has been hospitalized and institutionalized.

My highs are so high, but the lows are deadly. The things you do on a high are not good, though they're fun. You have a lot of sex, get a lot of work done, and drink a lot, but when you go down, you're horrified by what you did when you were high.

There have been a few suicide attempts, often triggered by financial stress. Drinking alcohol didn't help, either. My depression, augmented with wine, made me isolated and paralyzed. I was scared and ashamed that I couldn't go on and would lose everything.

I've been to a mental institution four times, but they don't help you. They stabilize you and then release you without providing any assistance on how to get on with your life.

For anyone with bipolar, I suggest they see a therapist and psychiatrist and put those two in touch. Listen to your friends. If they're good friends, they'll tell you something is different about you.

Know your family history. What I'm trying to come to terms with is that this is a medical condition. It's not what defines me. I'm not bipolar. I just happen to have it. Otherwise, you give it a lot of power.

Bipolar disorder symptoms include intense highs and lows of manic and depressive episodes as well as behaviors affected by those episodes. Those common signs come with assumptions about people with bipolar disorder.

Seven people hope to help reduce the stigma of the mental health condition by sharing their personal experiences.

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2 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 Institute of Mental Health. Bipolar disorder.

  2. American Psychological Association. Diagnosing and treating bipolar spectrum disorders.

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