Distinguishing Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder from Everyday Life

Symptoms, in itself, is an interesting word. Depending upon how one thinks of a “symptom” many different things can be included in the definition. For the purposes of this exploration, I’ll define symptom as any effect which is believed to be caused by having bipolar disorder. This is an important distinction to make because it excludes things that are altered due to being bipolar but that are not directly caused by it. For instance, under this definition, an angry mood swing can be considered a symptom because it may be caused by the disorder but subsequent yelling or fighting is not and is therefore excluded as a possible symptom.

Here’s a list of some direct symptoms I experience nearly every day.

  1. Potentially extreme mood swings caused by innocuous triggers, such as the weather, frustrating news from a client, or a compliment on my attire for the day.
  2. Insomnia due to manic energies.
  3. Increased rate of speech. I have had to explicitly practice speaking slower so that people can understand what I say.
  4. Extremely distractable. Focusing on anything, be it a work project, a TV show, someone else, takes almost noticeable effort. I have gotten better at this with practice too.
  5. Reduced apetite, either due to depression or to excitement about other things. I literally don’t remember to eat very frequently.

In addition, there are some symptoms which are less frequent. Such symptoms include physical pain due to extreme depression (usually in the pain of my hand, arm, or chest), difficulty moving (again, depression can literally be paralyzing), and loss of specific blocks of memory.

Some of these seem more extreme than others. More interesting than the fact that these are actually symptoms of “just” a mood disorder, I think, is the observation that emotions can powerfully affect so many different parts of life. There is a lot to be said for knowing thyself, isn’t there?

So What Is A Symptom?

Some symptoms of Bipolar Disorder are very general. For example, the American National Mental Health Association’s List of Symptoms for Bipolar Disorder state “Easily irritated or distracted, provocative, intrusive or aggressive behavior, fatigue or loss of energy and irritability or restlessness” among others as possible symptoms. Each of these symptoms can have many causes. Here is a list of a few possibilities right off the top of my head.

  • Lack of sleep.
  • Long day at work.
  • Just found out a friend is in the hospital.
  • Relationship problems.

There is no reason why someone who is not Bipolar would not display the same symptoms as someone who is. A cursory glance at these lists is all that’s needed to label everyone on Earth as bipolar. Furthermore, there is currently no test available with which to determine whether someone has Bipolar Disorder or not with absolute accuracy.

That’s a very hard question. It is a fact that psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and other mental-health professionals very often mistake bipolar disorder as some other disorder such as ADD or social anxiety disorder. Sometimes, they don’t even catch it at all.

One reason why the question is hard for me is because I’m not “normal.” I’ve never been normal! How would I know the difference between what is caused by bipolar disorder and what isn’t without a frame of reference? The answer is quite simply that I’ve had to guess. I’ve observed other people, and then noted both differences and similarities between how they act in certain circumstances and how I act. For example, this came up in a conversation with a friend recently.

For a long time, I was always so self-conscious whenever I needed to cough or sneeze on the subway. It’s not that I’m afraid of coughing or sneezing in public, but it’s just that no one else is making any noise, so if I sneezed it’d be very noticeable. Then I realized that other people coughed and sneezed all the time (which is why I try to remember to wash my hands when I come home) and it never seemed to affect them. So, I figured it’s probably not something important enough to worry about.

By observing the surrounding environment I believe I can get a pretty good sense of what normal is even without being “a normal person.” If you want to get slightly philosophical, remember that no individual is the same as another individual, so even within the “normal” range there can be great variances. How do normal people know they are normal? They actually don’t, but they use the same technique of observation I described above without realizing it, and then end up with a conclusion that they can believe.

In any comparison, it helps to first establish the things being compared individually. In this case, that means to first define what is considered normal, and then define what isn’t.

Defining Normal

The Princeton online dictionary (accessed via a Google search for the word normal) states eloquently that normal is “being approximately average or within certain limits.”

In the case of relevance to bipolar disorder, this means that the range of emotions felt by a normal person is contained within certain limits and do not reach extreme levels. This is either the result of being less sensitive to the normal ups and downs of life or because these emotions simply get capped at some point. To put it biological terms, the chemistry in their brains does not change as rapidly or as much as someone with bipolar disorder. The symptoms listed earlier are thus less likely to occur in a normal person, though this does not necessarily mean that they will not.

Defining What Isn’t Normal

Now that we have defined normal, it is very easy to define what isn’t. Obviously, what isn’t normal is anything that does not adhere to the above restrictions. Bipolar people are not normal precisely because they behave differently than most other people when in the same situations. Usually, our behavior is more acute. When we are sad, we easily slip into severe clinical depression. When we are happy, we easily lose touch with the practical reality in favor of the happiness.

That simply does not happen to most people, and it’s a fascinating difference to contemplate. It’s also true that people who are bipolar are affected by the same things as people who are normal, and they are also likely affected in the same way.

Bipolar Disorder is Usually Responsible for Effects, Not Causes

So how can I, really, tell the difference? I can’t, but then, I don’t need to. Observation has taught me that I am very normal in regards to what triggers different moods in me and how I am affected by those moods.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about triggers and symptoms of bipolar disorder is that there has never been a mood swing, outburst, or mania without a real event as a cause, as a trigger. That’s something my father first noticed and told me back when I was a teenager, and it’s something that has helped keep me confident in my sanity for a long time.

Sometimes it’s very hard to spot what originally triggered a mood, but if I re-trace my steps backward through time and focus on what my emotions were saying at each moment, I can always find what triggered my mood. That’s when it becomes crystal clear that bipolar disorer affected my response, my reaction to the trigger, far more than it caused my initial mood swing. It was, in fact, my interpretation of the event, my response to the reality I perceived, that caused my mood.

Distinguishing the symptoms have become less important to me than distinguishing my reactions. I don’t hope to cure my bipolar disorder, but I do hope to live happily with it.

4 replies on “Distinguishing Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder from Everyday Life”

  1. In that, you’re lucky. I still wonder sometimes where the mood swings start. I am prone to thoughts dropping in from a clear blue sky, quite dark thoughts, believe it or not. I do know some things that trigger me and do what I can to avoid them, or to cope with those I cannot avoid. The blog is a good help for those. Your father sounds wonderful. Kind, helpful. You’re lucky again in that as well.

  2. You’re right, I am lucky. At first, however, I didn’t understand any of my feelings, and couldn’t trace any of them to a trigger. Triggers are there, but they aren’t always obvious. They get easier to find the more you know about yourself, and that takes a lot of time to get good at.

    It is, afterall, much harder to get to know one’s self than it is to get to know someone else. We have the inherent disadvantage of never having an objective view. It’s tough.

    As for my father, he is a bigger influence than I tend to let on. He has succeeded in making an heir of his ideas in me. I just write about them better than he can. ;)

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