The term “bipolar” gets thrown a lot in pop culture. “This weather is so bipolar.” “Oh my god, I’m so bipolar.” “Why are you so bipolar today?” I think the word you’re actually looking for is moody, unpredictable, or inconsistent. But unfortunately, many people use bipolar as an adjective to describe anything that isn’t working according to plan. 

The National Bipolar Institute reminds us to stop using the term bipolar as an adjective to describe things that are broken or unreliable. “When you use the word bipolar to describe something broken, you are implying that people with bipolar are broken….This silence and shame prevent people from seeking help when they need it.” There are a lot of stigmas around bipolar disorder, so let’s dive into some of those myths and discover the truth about this misunderstood mental illness

Bipolar disorder is rare

Bipolar disorder is not some rare, mystery illness. In fact, it affects around 2.6% of the U.S. population age 18 and older every year. Although that percentage may not seem high, that’s 5.7 million adult Americans. Even though this disorder isn’t as prevalent as many other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, it’s considered to be one of the most difficult and exhausting psychiatric illnesses because it’s chronic and long-lasting. Researchers estimate that 25% to 60% of those with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their lives. Up to 19% of those attempts, sadly, are successful. 

Even though this disorder is not as widely known as others, it affects a large portion of the US in very significant ways.

There’s only one type of bipolar disorder

The term “bipolar disorder” is used as an umbrella for the different types and forms of the disorder. There are also forms of bipolar that aren’t technically diagnosed under the clinical term but still share many of the symptoms. 

  • Bipolar Disorder I: Includes at least one manic episode (which we’ll discuss later in this article). People often experience depressive episodes in Bipolar I, but it’s not required for diagnosis.

  • Bipolar Disorder II: Diagnosis for this type requires a major depressive episode and a hypomanic episode, which is slightly milder than mania

  • Cyclothymia: Cycling between hypomanic and depressive moods occurs for a least two years, with symptoms present for at least one year

  • Rapid Cycling: This involves at least four episodes of mood changes within a 12-month period unrelated to substance use or other medical conditions

Not all bipolar are created equal. After being diagnosed, bipolar disorders may require slightly different treatment based on the subtype of the disorder.

Bipolar disorder is just mood swings

Some people think bipolar disorder is simply a mood swing. They’re not completely wrong. While it’s true that people with bipolar disorder experience periods of exhaustion and depression and periods of mania, these aren’t your average mood swings. These high highs and low lows can last for days, weeks, months, and in extreme cases, even years—with no relief from the extremity. In cases of this disorder, mania and depression are typically associated with dangerous or harmful behaviors. During mania, people may engage in risk-taking behaviors, going days without sleeping. During a depressive episode, they may not leave their house and could be at risk of self-harm. 

These “swings” are unpredictable and erratic, and many people experience both mania and depression at the same time—called “mixed episodes.” There’s no rhyme or reason to these symptoms either, so there’s no way to prepare for a manic episode.

However, there are clinical requirements that have to be met in order to be officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder:

  • A hypomanic episode that lasts for at least four days

  • A manic episode that lasts for at least one week

  • A depressive episode that lasts for at least two weeks

Bipolar people are always either manic or depressed

Although it might seem like there is no in-between for people with bipolar disorder, there is a “neutral mood.” In this period, they experience an even, balanced mood, also called euthymia. They can also experience “mixed episodes,” which have features of both mania and depression at the same time. 

It’s common for mood episodes to start off with mild symptoms that gradually worsen over time, so it’s fair to say that, untreated, bipolar disorder is debilitating. It may also take a long time for someone to switch moods from mania to depression; not everyone experiences rapid cycling. Hayden Center Jr., PhD, says, “A major focus of treatment is helping an individual learn to identify the signs that they are entering into a depressive or manic state.”

Mania is exciting and gets shit done

There’s a common misconception that mania is fun, exciting, and even productive at times. In the early stages of manic, a person might feel extremely energetic and inspired. Some of the signs of mania are:

  • Unusually high energy

  • Increased activity levels

  • Feeling wired, jumpy, agitated, or irritated

  • Feelings of overconfidence

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Talking unusually quickly

  • Trying to take on too many things at once

  • Engaging in risky behaviors you wouldn’t otherwise

While someone in a manic episode might feel good at first—and it might feel good to be around them—it can quickly turn sour. Those good feelings don’t last often and are usually replaced by confusion, irritability, and racing thoughts. Many people experience delusions once the euphoria fades. Manic episodes can also lead to sleep deprivation and risky behavior, such as shopping sprees, gambling, or reckless sexual behaviors. Even though mania can feel amazing after coming out of a depressive episode, it can be just as dangerous as depression.

Bonus myth: people with bipolar disorder live sad, miserable lives

This last one is obviously also a myth—but one that many people think to be true. Just like other mental illnesses, there is hope for those diagnosed. People with bipolar disorder can and do live happy, successful, and fulfilling lives. Although there’s no curse, bipolar disorder can be successfully managed through medication and therapy. 

To read more about common mental health myths, check out our article, Debunking 6 Misconceptions About Panic Attacks.