What are the Bipolar Disorders

This is week 3 of a 5-part series that I’m doing on some of the most common mental health conditions. Past articles in the series include:

Today, I’m going to share about the bipolar disorders. In my opinion, these disorders are some of the most misdiagnosed and misunderstood. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I’m/you’re so bipolar” to describe situational anxiety or disorganization. Such uses of “bipolar” are inaccurate and contribute to the stigma surrounding these disorders. My goal today is to provide a brief overview of Bipolar I Disorder and Bipolar II disorder.

To begin, “bi-polar” is a term used to describe two extremes of mood: mania and depression. In both bipolar I and bipolar II, symptoms alternate between mania (or hypomania) and depression.

Bipolar I Disorder (the severe version)

Bipolar I is characterized by at least one manic episode. I often hear the term, “manic” being misused, so let me clarify.

A manic episode is when a person experiences at least 3 of the following symptoms consistently for at least 7 days:

  • Unreasonably high self-esteem
  • Less need for sleep (feels fully rested after a short period of sleep)
  • Rapid, excessive, and pressured speech
  • Racing thoughts
  • Low attentiveness
  • Increased productivity or energy given to certain tasks
  • Impulsive or reckless decision-making

Depressive episodes were described in part one of this series. For those symptoms, click here. People with bipolar I can also have hypomanic episodes, which I’ll describe in the next section.

Bipolar II Disorder (the milder version)

People with bipolar II have never had a manic episode lasting at least 7 days. To meet the criteria for bipolar II, they will need to have had at least one hypomanic episode. Symptoms of a hypomanic episode are the same as those listed above for a manic episode; however, hypomanic episodes are shorter in duration. Hypomanic episodes last at least 4 days (if longer than 6 days, that’s a manic episode).

Those with bipolar II also have depressive episodes.


Most people are not aware that there are two distinct types of bipolar disorder. In my work as a therapist, I observe that bipolar II is a lot more common than bipolar I. The frequency, intensity, and duration of mania and depression can vary between individuals.

While not exhaustive, my goal here is to cover some of the similarities and distinctions between the two types of bipolar.

Still have questions? Leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to continue the conversation.

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