Whether or not you or anyone close to you has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you’ve almost certainly heard the term tossed around in media or daily life.
As the name suggests, bipolar disorder involves vacillation between extreme highs and lows in mood, activity level, and more.
But, bipolar disorder is frequently misunderstood, despite being a relatively common diagnosis – an estimated 4.4% of adults experience bipolar disorder in their lifetime, according to Harvard Medical School.
Here are some common myths and misconceptions about bipolar disorder, and the truths behind them, according to experts.
MYTH: Bipolar is just another word for moody.
Technically, this one is a misuse of terminology. In colloquial speech, it’s common for the word “bipolar” to be used as an adjective, said Lauren Pedersen, LMFT, a psychotherapist based in Connecticut.
“It is often ‘tossed around’ as an explanation or description of a person who is ‘moody’ or whose anger is not understood,” she told INSIDER. “The overuse of the name contributes to stigma and misunderstanding of mental illness in general.
Separating the term from the illness, and using it instead to describe erratic or otherwise unfavorable behaviour, can be disrespectful to those who actually have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Being precise and accurate with language is one way to work against the negative connotations that are often associated with mental illnesses and the people who have them.
MYTH: Bipolar disorder really just means mood swings, which everyone has sometimes.
Just like sadness is not the same as depression and nervousness is not the same as anxiety, bipolar disorder is a recognised mental illness which is distinct from neurotypical experience.
“Bipolar has a full set of diagnostic criteria that have to be met in order for the diagnosis to be assigned accurately,” Pedersen told INSIDER. “Regular mood swings that are attributable to hormonal changes, seasonal changes, social stressors, life transitions, grief or loss, drug or alcohol use, do not equal bipolar disorder.”
If you think you may be experiencing bipolar disorder, a licensed psychotherapist can help you sort out whether or not your symptoms signal the presence of bipolar or another disorder according to recognised criteria.
MYTH: There’s only one kind of bipolar disorder.
Unbeknownst to many who don’t have personal experience with bipolar disorder, there are actually multiple subtypes of the diagnosis.
“Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterised by mood swings from depression to periods of excessively high energy, difficulties with sleep, and changes in thinking and behaviour,” Gwen Kesten, Ph.D., a privately practicing licensed psychologist based in Connecticut, told INSIDER.
Within that general description, there are distinct subtypes: Bipolar I, Bipolar II, Cyclothymic disorder, and “Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorders,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Within those subtypes, there are individual differences. Bipolar disorder, like any mental illness, affects people in a wide variety of ways. Symptoms can vary in presence and severity even between those diagnosed with the same sub-type. Dr. Kesten also mentioned that not all bipolar disorder symptoms are strictly emotional.
MYTH: Bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder are basically the same.
Since bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD) tend to involve extreme moods, they are sometimes wrongfully used interchangeably. As Frank Yeomans, M.D., Ph.D. told NewYork-Presbyterian’s publication Health Matters, “they are two distinct and serious diagnoses with different symptoms that require different methods of treatment.”
BPD has no clear cause, although genetics may be a factor, whereas bipolar disorder is “rooted in brain structure and functioning, genetics, and family history,” according to Health Matters.
Bipolar disorder as it’s currently understood has more of a biological basis, whereas BPD has more to do with the way an individual perceives and responds to emotional triggers.
As a result of bipolar and BPD being so frequently conflated, their stereotypes and stigmas tend to arise interchangeably as well, which is unfair to those with either diagnosis.
This is what it’s like to be bipolar
MYTH: Individuals with bipolar disorder are always at one extreme or the other.
“One harmful myth about bipolar disorder is that folks who have this diagnosis are always functioning at one or the other ‘pole’ of the illness and think/behave in strange ways and thus may have a difficult time with everyday social or work functions,” Dr. Kesten said.
In fact, she said, “between times of these exaggerated experiences can be long periods when the individual acts and feels asymptomatic or ‘normal.'”
Just because a person with bipolar disorder experiences extreme states, does not mean they are always experiencing an extreme state. Furthermore, certain treatments can help a person manage their symptoms when they do arise.
MYTH: People with bipolar disorder can’t live a ‘normal’ life.
The stigma that those with bipolar disorder are unstable and unable to live a ‘normal’ life can be inaccurate and hurtful.
“As with all disorders, bipolar symptoms exist on a continuum of severity and can wax and wane throughout life making it more or less easy to function on a daily basis,” Pedersen told INSIDER.
“Many folks with bipolar disorder can lead functional and even highly functional lives,” Dr. Kesten added.
According to Dr. Ketsen, an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment make an enormous difference in how well a person with bipolar disorder can function in work, school, relationships, and other areas of life.
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