Bipolar Disorder: It May Not Mean What You Think

Hello readers! It has been quite a long time since my last post, but I'm glad to be back with you today. In this entry, I want to out one of the most frequently misused diagnoses that I hear in common conversation. How many times have you heard -

"My dad is bipolar. He's fine one minute, then he's screaming and throwing things. Then he's back to normal again."

Here, it's implied that bipolar means someone swings between a calm, relaxed state and boundless anger. I often hear the words 'anger issues' used interchangeably with bipolar disorder as well.

It turns out, this is not correct.

Bipolar disorder is actually a newer term for what was once called manic depression. They both have always meant the same thing, they just changed the name. Bipolar disorder is  the current language used in recent versions of the DSM while the term manic depression has been phased out. The strange part is that the old name, manic depression, actually reads more intuitively than what we use now.

Bipolar is meant to define just what is sounds like - two poles. The confusing part is that it doesn't tell us what the poles are. In truth - rather than calm to anger - those poles are identified as depression and mania/hypomania. Without getting too technical - this would look less like someone's explosively angry dad, and more like someone that bounces between debilitating depression and grandiose highs. If you've ever heard someone (correctly) use the phrase, "I feel manic today", they may be describing their relentless energy, racing thoughts, and/or grandiose mindset.

Now, in practice, mania MAY come out as explosive anger (however, it doesn't need to). Feeling manic is usually marked by behaviors that are at minimum seriously interrupting someone's life (e.g. preventing sleep, feel like they can eat less or nothing at all, obsessively focused on something at the expense of other needs), and at most putting their life in danger (e.g. believing you can fly, you can outrun a train in a car etc.).

It's important to know the difference because:

  1. People who struggle with actual bipolar disorder may not know it because they've gotten a wrong idea about what it actually is.  
  2. People with explosive anger issues may not get the right kind of care if they walk into a therapist's office and say, "my family tells me I'm bipolar".  

In conclusion, please take this knowledge and spread the word. Mental health is already a confusing thing and if there's any way we can make it clearer, let's do it. Both bipolar disorder and explosive anger issues are things that we hear all the time - but now you can tell your friends, "Hey! Do you know you're using that term wrong?"

Thank you again for reading and as always, please contact me if you're interested in starting your therapy today!