Bipolar vs Depression: What's the Difference?

Sometimes, people confuse bipolar disorder and depression. Read on to learn the differences between bipolar vs depression.

Are you worried about the mental health of yourself or a loved one?

Confused about bipolar vs depression?

Both depression and bipolar disorder can cause symptoms including mood swings and changes in behavior, but the two conditions have some key differences.

Depression is a mood disorder that can involve feelings of extreme sadness, low motivation, and problems with sleep.

Bipolar disorder is a condition that involves ‘high’ manic periods and ‘low’ depressive periods. These highs and low are different from normal changes in mood and can have a huge impact on day-to-day functioning.

Bipolar disorder is sometimes referred to as manic depression, which can cause confusion when talking about the two conditions. Keep reading to understand the differences.

Bipolar vs Depression: What's the Difference?

Symptoms of Depression

Depression isn’t just feeling a bit sad or down – it’s an extreme low mood that lasts for two weeks or more.

As well as feeling generally low, you might see the following symptoms:

  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Moving or speaking slowly
  • Low motivation
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Lack of interest in usual activities
  • Irritability
  • Aches and pains
  • Suicidal thoughts

Depression can vary in severity and you might notice that your symptoms change according to what’s going on in your life.

For some people, the symptoms of depression are more severe in the winter months – something which is known as a SAD or seasonal affective disorder.

It can be really challenging to deal with the symptoms of depression on your own, and there’s a risk that they’ll get worse without treatment. If you think you have depression, contact your doctor for help and support.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder involves extreme highs and lows which are much more intense than usual mood swings.

During a manic period, you might experience the following:

  • Increased energy levels and activity
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Being more talkative than usual
  • Racing thoughts
  • Poor decision making
  • Being delusional or having hallucinations
  • Having grandiose ideas
  • Elevated self-importance
  • Eating or sleeping less than usual

During a period of depression, you might experience any of the symptoms of depression listed above.

It’s also possible to suffer from a ‘mixed episode’, which means you might experience high and low symptoms at the same time or cycle rapidly back and forth between feeling very happy and very sad.

Types of Depression

Depression can fall into a few different categories according to factors like what brought it on and how long it’s been going on for.

If you’re experiencing depression before or after giving birth, you could be suffering from prenatal or postnatal depression.

If you feel depressed at certain times of the year, you could be suffering from a seasonal affective disorder.

If you have mild depression over a long period of time, you might be diagnosed with dysthymia. While you might not experience any very severe symptoms, your low-level depression could continue for a long time.

If you’re feeling down because of a situation, like a job loss or the death of a loved one, you may be suffering from situational depression, also known as an adjustment disorder.

If you feel depressed on most days for two weeks or more you’ll usually be classed as suffering from major depression. Major depression is what you probably imagine when you hear the term ‘depression’.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

There are two main types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I and bipolar II

Bipolar I involves severe mood swings and cycling between periods of mania and depression.

Bipolar II is milder and involves periods of hypomania, which is less severe than mania, combined with periods of depression.

If you have four or more episodes during a 12-month period, you might be diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder.

Causes of Depression

If you have situational depression or seasonal depression, the causes of your low mood are probably fairly obvious.

However, if you’re suffering from major depression, there might not be a clear cause. Your depression may seem to have come out of nowhere, or it might be the result of a chain of events.

The following factors may contribute to your likelihood of suffering from depression:

  • Family history
  • Stressful life events
  • Illness
  • Alcohol or drugs
  • Personality
  • Lifestyle

When you visit your doctor to talk about depression, they should take a detailed history from you. This will help you pinpoint a cause and decide on the right treatment.

Causes of Bipolar Disorder

No single cause has been identified for bipolar disorder. Instead, it’s likely to be caused by multiple factors including genetics, hormone imbalances, brain chemistry, and environmental factors.

If you have a family member who suffers from bipolar disorder, you’re more likely to suffer from it yourself.

Treatment for Depression

Depression is usually treated using a combination of self-help, talking therapies, and medication.

Self-help measures might include getting more exercise or eating a healthier diet. Talking therapies help you to process difficult feelings and learn healthy coping mechanisms.

Medications, like antidepressants, can help to address a chemical imbalance in the brain.

It might take some trial and error to find the right treatment for your depression and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is usually treated using a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

The main classes of medication used in treating bipolar disorder are antipsychotics, antidepressants, and mood stabilizers. Lithium is one of the most commonly used drugs, although doctors are still researching exactly how it works.

While depression can sometimes be managed using just talking therapy and self-help methods, patients suffering from bipolar disorder will usually need medication as well.

Bipolar vs Depression: How Can You Tell the Difference?

Still confused about bipolar vs depression?

The main thing to remember is that bipolar disorder involves extreme highs and lows of mood, while depression only involves low mood.

If you think you might be depressed or suffering from bipolar disorder, getting help from your doctor is really important. They’ll be able to diagnose you correctly and provide the right treatment.

Try to avoid self-diagnosis – getting expert help is always the best thing to do.

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