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What is bipolar depression?

To understand bipolar depression, you first have to understand bipolar disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder as a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out daily tasks.

There are several different types of bipolar disorder. All involve changes in mood (both low and high). To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a person must have had at least one “high” episode in his or her life, along with recurrent “lows.” These “highs” and “lows” can make coping with bipolar disorder challenging.

Bipolar depression is the depressive phase of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar depression is easily confused with other kinds of depression

Bipolar depression is often mistaken for unipolar depression, but the two are distinct illnesses. Bipolar depression falls under bipolar disorder, while unipolar depression falls under a different umbrella. People with unipolar depression and bipolar depression may be treated differently. Correct diagnosis is important to help people manage their bipolar depression and find a treatment that is right for them.

Here’s an easy way to remember how unipolar depression and bipolar disorder are different:

Know the signs & symptoms of bipolar disorder

Bipolar depression has the same “low” symptoms as depression:

  • Prolonged sadness, depressed mood, or unexplained crying spells
  • No interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Loss of energy
  • Difficulties with sleep—either sleeping too much or not at all
  • Changes in appetite—significant weight gain or weight loss
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

In addition, bipolar disorder is characterized by one or more episodes of “high” symptoms:

  • Feelings of abnormal excitement, or elevated mood
  • Talking very rapidly or excessively
  • Needing less sleep than normal, yet still having plenty of energy
  • Feeling agitated, irritable, hyper, or easily distracted
  • Engaging in risky behavior such as excessive spending, impulsive sexual encounters, or ill-advised business decisions

It’s not hard to see why bipolar depression is often mistaken for depression. People with bipolar disorder typically spend more time in the “lows” than in the “highs” of their illness. They also tend to seek help when they’re depressed. And a “high” episode can be easily overlooked or seen as something positive, rather than as a possible sign of bipolar depression. That’s why it’s important to share ALL of your symptoms with your healthcare provider, so together you can develop a treatment plan to help make living with bipolar depression more manageable.