The Importance of Understanding What Bipolar Is

Understanding Bipolar

Understanding Bipolar

With contributions from Eric Patterson. 

Bipolar disorder affects about 2.9 percent of adults in the US. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Bipolar disorder, sometimes referred to as manic-depressive disorder, is characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels that affect a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.”

While this is a broad definition, there are four different major types of bipolar disorder. These types include: bipolar I, bipolar II, cyclothymic disorder, and other non-specified forms of bipolar disorder. The symptoms can range from euphoric manias to catatonic depression depending on one’s diagnosis. Each type of bipolar disorder has different symptoms that may require different forms of treatment, however they all should be addressed by a mental health care professional.

Misconceptions Surrounding Bipolar Disorder 

Even though awareness surrounding mental health has increased, there are still plenty of misconceptions surrounding bipolar disorder.

Bipolar and Mood Swings

There are still many people who believe that any emotional outburst by someone who has bipolar disorder can be credited to the illness. While bipolar disorder can influence emotions and cause mood swings, it is not the sole cause of all of their emotions. This is dangerous because it’s an attempt to take away the validity or merit of that person’s emotions. It’s saying that their emotions are not valid due to the presence of bipolar disorder.

A second misconception is the thought that being bipolar just means that you have a hair-trigger-temper.


“She borrowed his pen for a second to sign the attendance sheet without explicitly asking and he lost it. I swear that man is so bipolar. One second he’s calm and the next second he’s raging!”

This notion is problematic for a wide variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s rooted in falsehoods. This is coming from the assumption that someone who is prone to outbursts of aggression must have bipolar disorder. Anger is not a symptom exclusive to bipolar disorder and it can be a product of a wide variety of symptoms brought about by other mood disorders (or just a few bad days).

While there is a connection between bipolar disorder and anger, it isn’t always prevalent in all cases. Many times anger and irritability are a result of the emotions directly brought about by the illness.

Secondly, this notion is dangerous. It spreads a troublesome misconception that unfortunately overshadows the public’s knowledge of the true symptoms of bipolar disorder. If people truly understood the consequences and symptoms of bipolar disorder, they’d be better equipped to encourage people who are experiencing these symptoms to seek professional help.

Lastly, this reinforces the misconception that anger is the sole or the most prevalent symptom seen in people with bipolar disorder. This is very counterproductive because some people won’t be able to accurately acknowledge the specific potential dangers those with bipolar disorder may face when having a depressive, manic, hypomanic, or mixed episode.

Bipolar and Success in Life

Another common misconception is that having bipolar disorder will make it impossible to live a successful life. While everyone has a different idea of what success is, saying that it’d be impossible to achieve that successful life you want with bipolar disorder is a blatant lie.

There is no denying that bipolar disorder can influence your productivity when having an episode, but once you’re stable and out of the woods you’re more than capable of pursuing your goals. Not only will you be ready to make your own life improvements once stable, but you’ll have a resilience and awareness of your emotional state that your friends without bipolar disorder won’t have.

There have been plenty of successful people with bipolar disorder who have gone on to influence entire mediums like, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Carrie Fisher, and even Winston Churchill.

With many misconceptions floating around, it can make it fairly difficult explaining bipolar disorder to friends and family.

Explaining Bipolar Disorder to Your Loved Ones 

The emotions experienced during a bipolar episode can often be difficult to put into words, especially when attempting to explain them to someone who either does not have bipolar disorder, or someone who is not well informed on the matter.

Firstly, make sure that you’ve been diagnosed by a mental health professional before jumping the gun and telling people you have bipolar disorder. After your diagnosis, make sure that you do some research before speaking with your loved ones. It’s easier to explain what’s happening to you if you understand it yourself.

Consider asking some loved ones to join you during your next session with your mental health care professional. This is especially useful for those who may not have understood the explanation you gave them yourself.

Your mental health care professional will be more adept at explaining bipolar disorder (and your specific diagnosis) to your loved ones members than you, and they’ll be better equipped to answer any questions they may have. Your mental health care professional is there to help, so don’t be afraid to lean on them if you need to!

Next page: Living with a person with bipolar disorder and tips for understanding bipolar disorder further. 

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