Bipolar Disorder vs Depression: Understanding the Difference

Bipolar Disorder vs Depression: Understanding the Difference

Depression and bipolar disorder both fall within the category of mood disorders, but these two diagnoses are actually very different. Although some of the symptoms and diagnostic criteria overlap, people with depression and people with bipolar disorder face unique challenges when managing their mental health.

If you or a loved one has either of these conditions, you might wonder what’s the difference between bipolar and depression. Understanding how these diagnoses differ can help you better understand the people in your life who are affected by mental illness.

What Is Depression?

Depression is a common mental health condition marked by intense and prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness. When you have depression, your low mood can severely affect your opinion of yourself and the world around you, and your symptoms can make it hard to keep up with your daily activities.

There are several specific types of depression, but all cause a low mood and a loss of interest. Major depressive disorder causes severe symptoms that last for two weeks or longer. Persistent depressive disorder causes symptoms that last for more than two years. Some people struggle with persistent depressive disorder for the majority of their lives and need continual professional support to manage their symptoms. Another common form of depression is seasonal affective disorder, which causes depressive symptoms that come and go with the changing of the seasons.

Symptoms of Depression

The two hallmarks of depression are a depressed mood and loss of interest in your usual activities, and you must experience at least one of these symptoms of depression to be diagnosed. However, depression can cause a number of other symptoms as well. The following are just a few of the many depressive symptoms you might face:

  • • Mental or physical fatigue
  • • Sleeping more or less often than usual
  • • Change in appetite; weight loss or gain
  • • Difficulty concentrating
  • • Thoughts of death or suicide

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

While the main symptom of depression is a low mood, people with bipolar disorder cycle between lows and highs. Bipolar disorder causes depressive phases, which have the same symptoms as clinical depression, that alternate with manic phases. These manic phases can make you feel euphoric, powerful, and highly motivated. However, they can result in risky or impulsive behavior, and they’re typically followed by an intense crash.

If you have bipolar disorder, you might not always be in a depressed or manic stage. Sometimes, you may go for weeks or months feeling completely stable before depressive or manic symptoms start to creep in.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

During a depressive period, the symptoms of bipolar look the same as the symptoms of depression. A manic phase, however, looks much different. The following are the most common symptoms of mania:

  • • Feeling overjoyed, elated, or euphoric
  • • Inability to sleep or decreased need for sleep
  • • Racing thoughts and rapid speech
  • • Feeling jumpy, agitated, or on-edge
  • • Risky behaviors such as spending sprees or reckless driving

A manic episode can last anywhere from a week to several months, and this phase is almost always followed by a depressive crash. Most people with bipolar disorder spend more time in a depressed stage than in a manic stage, but mania can be completely exhausting and can take a significant toll on your life.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

Just like there are multiple types of depression, there are also a few forms of bipolar disorder that vary slightly in their symptoms. Bipolar I disorder, which is the most severe form of bipolar, causes phases of major depression alternating with manic episodes. To be diagnosed with bipolar I, you must have had at least one manic episode and one major depressive episode.

Bipolar II disorder causes major depression and hypomania, which is a milder type of mania. The symptoms of hypomania may not be as dramatic or life-altering as the symptoms of mania, but they can still have serious consequences. To be diagnosed with bipolar II, you must have had at least one hypomanic episode.

Another form of bipolar disorder is cyclothymic disorder, which causes distinct highs and lows that don’t fully meet the diagnostic criteria for depressive, manic, or hypomanic episodes. While the symptoms of cyclothymic disorder might not be as severe as the other forms of bipolar disorder, they typically last for years and can cause serious emotional turmoil.

Bipolar Disorder vs Depression: Key Differences

Because mental health is still a stigmatized topic, many people are misguided about the specifics of different disorders. There are so many misconceptions about mental health, especially about bipolar disorder, but understanding what bipolar disorder truly is will allow you to empathize with those who struggle with it.

Bipolar disorder causes phases of depression that look virtually identical to clinical depression. Most people with bipolar disorder also experience depression more frequently than they experience mania, so individuals are often misdiagnosed with depression when they actually have bipolar disorder. It’s also rare for people to seek professional help when they’re in the middle of a manic episode because mania can feel great at its height, so someone with bipolar disorder may go years without a correct diagnosis.

The manic phase of bipolar disorder is the most important difference between bipolar disorder and depression. While bipolar disorder does cause periods of depression, no depressive disorder causes mania. Even if someone has only ever had one manic or hypomanic episode, they still meet the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder and depression can also differ in their prognosis. Everyone’s experience with mental illness is different, and it’s impossible to predict how long your symptoms will last. However, bipolar disorder is more likely to be a lifelong condition. You can manage the symptoms effectively with a combination of medication and therapy, but bipolar disorder is unlikely to completely disappear from your life. Depression, in some cases, may occur for a few weeks or months and never return. Some people do struggle for a very long time with depressive disorders, though.

Bipolar disorder and depression are both serious conditions that can prevent you from living a happy and healthy life. The key difference to keep in mind is that bipolar disorder causes mania while depression does not. No matter your diagnosis or your symptoms, though, you are always deserving of mental health support. Mood disorders are painful, isolating conditions, but help is available. With professional treatment, you can minimize your symptoms and take control of your mental health.

Menachem Psychotherapy Group provides counseling services to individuals struggling with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and other mental health concerns. Our therapists understand how much depression or bipolar disorder can interfere with your quality of life, and we have the knowledge and resources to help. Contact us today to set up a meeting with a therapist in Los Angeles.


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