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Introduction to Bipolar Disorder and Mood Disorders

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D. & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

People use the term mood to describe the emotional tones that color their daily lives. Moods are everywhere and everyone has them. Moods may be happy or sad; energized or slow; making up various combinations of emotional states. Moods consist of feelings as well as the thoughts and judgments that give feelings their meaning. An anxious mood may shift into an excited mood with a simple change of perspective. A depressed mood may shift into a happier one upon hearing good news. Moods are typically short-term or passing things that shift from moment to moment or day to day, but they can be ongoing states as well which color a person's whole life for long periods of time.

While people's moods rise and fall as various life events are experienced, most moods never become that extreme or feel uncontrollable. As depressed as an average person might get, it won't take too much for them to recover and start feeling better. Similarly, happy and excited moods are not easily continued long-term either, and tend to fall back to a sort of average mood. Most people can't stay too depressed or too happy for any length of time.

People with bipolar disorder experience extreme and abnormal mood swings that stick around for extended periods of time. They also cause severe stress in the person's life and cause problems in the ability to be successful at work/school and in relationships with others.

Bipolar Disorder (often called Manic-Depression, or sometimes Bipolar Affective Disorder), is a category of serious disorders. These disorders cause people to swing between extreme, severe and typically ongoing mood states. These mood states deeply affect their energy levels, attitudes, behavior and general ability to live their lives. Bipolar mood swings can damage relationships, affect job or school performance, and even result in suicide. Family and friends, as well as the affected person, often become frustrated and upset over how severe these mood swings can be.

Bipolar moods swing between 'up' states and 'down' states. Bipolar 'up' states are called Mania, while bipolar 'down' states are called Depression. Mania is characterized by:

  • a joyful, energetic mood
  • hyper-activity
  • a positive, expansive outlook on life
  • an inflated sense of self-esteem
  • a sense that just about anything is possible.

When in a manic state, people with bipolar disorder tend to show:

  • a decreased need for sleep
  • racing thoughts
  • rapid speech where the words won't come out fast enough to keep up with their racing thoughts
  • increased distractibility
  • poor judgment and impulsive behavior
  • an increased likelihood to engage in risky or dangerous behaviors and activities.

Depression is, more or less, the opposite mood state from mania. Depressive symptoms can vary a great deal from one person to the next. One person with depression may experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness. Another person may feel angry, irritated, and discouraged. These symptoms may also seem like a change in someone's personality. For example, someone who is usually patient might begin to lose his or her temper about things that normally would not bother him or her.

Symptoms can also change over time when someone is depressed. Someone who is initially withdrawn and sad can become very frustrated and irritable as a result of getting less sleep and not being able to accomplish simple tasks or make decisions. These symptoms cause stress that is noticed by others and cause problems at school, work or in relationships with others.