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Bipolar Disorder Versus Depression

Bipolar disorder and depression often have similar symptoms. You may wonder if you have a temporary bout of the blues or a more serious mood disorder.1

Signs of depression include feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks. A person with depression may self-isolate or lose interest in normal activities.2

Bipolar disorder is a complex disorder with bouts of depression and mania. People with bipolar exhibit dramatic mood swings and emotional instability.1-3

Since primary care doctors typically screen for mental health, it can be hard to get a correct diagnosis. People with bipolar usually report feeling depressed first. Busy doctors may forget to ask about family history or mania, and you can go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years.1,4

What is depression?

Depression is more than feeling blue. It is a persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness that interferes with daily activities.2

Job loss or health issues can make you feel moody and unmotivated. But most people are still able to problem-solve and seek out healthy coping strategies. People with depression often feel heavy, empty, and worthless. You may feel sad and not know why or have trouble completing daily tasks.2

Symptoms of depression

Depression can affect how you feel, think, and interact with the world. A major depressive disorder impacts your emotional and physical health.2

Your mood, motivation, and outlook on life can spiral without proper treatment. You may begin to think that life is not worth living.2

Other symptoms include:1-2

  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Angry outbursts and agitation
  • Poor attendance at work and school
  • Not sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Changes in appetite
  • Trouble thinking and making decisions
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

You should talk to your doctor if the feelings continue or get worse. Report any symptoms that make it hard for you to function every day for at least 2 weeks.2

What is bipolar disorder?

Formerly called manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder refers to the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. You might feel extremely depressed for days or weeks and then shift into a manic phase. This may last from a few days up to a month or 2.3

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong mood disorder with a strong genetic link. It is typically diagnosed in the teenage years or early 20s.1,3

People with bipolar disorder have extreme mood and energy shifts. They swing between highs and lows. Manic episodes are a hallmark of bipolar disorder.3

This means you may feel depressed for a period of time and then feel energetic and excited. Signs of mania can include feeling very energetic or euphoric, running on little sleep, talking fast, and racing thoughts.3

Symptoms of bipolar disorder

The symptoms of bipolar disorder can mimic that of depression. But they show up in different ways for different people, including:1,3

  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Agitated or overly excited
  • Fatigue or excessive energy
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Having trouble focusing or being forgetful
  • Risky behavior related to buying sprees or sex
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Mania symptoms followed by extreme depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or psychosis

A key sign of bipolar disorder is cycling between a depressed state and a manic or hypomanic state. These mood swings affect behavior, sleep, judgment, energy, and productivity. You may experience these mood shifts often or a few times per year.3

Risky behaviors and unstable emotions can cause problems with family, school, finances, and job performance. This results in chaotic relationships, poor choices, and undue hardships.3

Bipolar also should be considered in people with:1,4

  • Anxiety disorders
  • History of substance use disorders
  • Postpartum mood symptoms in women
  • Obesity/eating disorders
  • Seasonal affective disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • A family history of bipolar or mental illness
  • A complicated or chaotic life

Bipolar can be hard to diagnose because people appear depressed or downplay manic episodes. Your doctor should screen for and rule out bipolar disorder first.1,4

Treatment options

Both bipolar disorder and depression may require long-term treatment. Once diagnosed, you can manage depression with medication and good self-care strategies.2

For people with bipolar disorder, medication, therapy, and regular sleep and daily routines can help minimize mood swings. Symptoms and severity vary from person to person and can change over time.3,4

Other self-care tips include:3,4

  • Psychotherapy and support groups
  • Regular exercise
  • Consistent sleep routine
  • Dietary changes
  • Sunlight and time outdoors
  • Journaling to express emotions
  • Meditation and yoga
  • Blue light therapy

If you notice extreme mood swings in yourself or family members, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Bipolar disorder does not improve on its own and can disrupt your life in more ways than one.1,3

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.