What Is the Difference Between Depression and Bipolar Disorder?

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What Is the Difference Between Depression and Bipolar Disorder?

A common question you might hear, especially if you’re in the behavioral health field, is, “What is the difference between bipolar disorder and depression?”

Well, it depends on which depressive disorder you are talking about, as there are actually several psychiatric disorders that fall under the umbrella of “depression”; bipolar disorder happens to be one of them.

We will get to all of the depressive disorders later, but let us get back to the question at hand. Really, there are a couple of different ways you can answer this frequently asked question.

The Obvious, Snarky Answer

The person answering the question could choose to retort something like, “Bipolar disorder is a type of depression,” or, “Bipolar disorder IS depression, but not all depression is bipolar disorder.”

Those would kind of be the easy, cop-out answers, but it’s worth explaining the unique characteristics of bipolar disorder, even among its fellow depressive disorders and mood disorders.

Comparing Major Depression to Bipolar Disorder

What the person asking the question probably has in mind is major depressive disorder (MDD), also known as clinical depression. Now that we have a specific type of depression to compare bipolar disorder to, we can delve into all of the similarities and differences.

The difference between someone with bipolar disorder and someone with major depression is that while they will both experience the symptoms of depression, the former will go through periods of mania and fluctuate between these lows and highs.

What Are the Symptoms of Major Depression?

Someone could be diagnosed with major depressive disorder if they experience at least two straight weeks of general symptoms such as:

  • Hopelessness
  • Sadness
  • Grief
  • Frustration or anger
What Does Depression Feel Like?
Other symptoms commonly associated with depression include:

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Indecisiveness
  • Fatigue or drained of energy
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Overeating or lack of appetite
  • Frequent crying episodes
  • Short temper
  • Voluntary isolation
  • General indifference
  • Low or no self-worth

Which Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder Are Unique?

Bipolar disorder sufferers will go through depressed periods where they experience any number of the symptoms above, but then their mood will swing to the opposite end of the spectrum: mania. There’s a reason bipolar disorder used to be known as manic depression, even though the term seems to be an oxymoron. It’s because a bipolar sufferer will fluctuate between the two “modes,” if you will.

Some of the symptoms that may arise during periods of mania include:

Symptoms of Mania
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Anger and irritability
  • Rapid talking, racing thoughts
  • Restlessness
  • Easily distracted
  • Irrational behavior (due to altered judgment)
  • Delusions about one’s capabilities
  • Excessive behavior (shopping, gambling, sex, drinking, etc.)
  • Either over-the-top optimism or extreme pessimism
  • Hallucinations
As you’ve probably gleaned, mania represents the “high” feelings in a bipolar sufferer, while depression represents the “low.”

How Often Do Bipolar Sufferers Switch Between Mania and Depression?

This is a logical question that many people have when inquiring about bipolar disorder. They wonder if bipolar sufferers will toggle between mania and depression hourly, daily, etc.

The not-so-satisfying answer is that it depends on the person. Bipolar disorder doesn’t affect all of its victims the same. On average, bipolar sufferers will cycle between the two moods once or twice a year. So, that’s probably not as frequent as you would think. In fact, someone who goes through four or more cycles within 12 months is known as rapid cycling.

The manic episodes tend to occur in the spring or the fall among bipolar sufferers. Certain stimuli can accelerate their change from one mode to the other, such as the type of medication they’re taking, drug or alcohol use, or the loss of a loved one.

There are also periods where these individuals might go through mixed episodes. These periods feature a mixture of the aforementioned depression and mania symptoms, and they typically happen as the person is in the middle of switching from one mood to the other.

The Other Depressive Disorders

Depending on the publication, you may see a dozen or more different types of depression disorders listed. However, let’s take a quick look at the most prominent six (other than bipolar disorder):

  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder: a persistent angry or irritable mood in children, punctuated by temper tantrums and outbursts
  • Dysthymia (aka Persistent Depressive Disorder): similar to Major Depressive Disorder, but with less-severe symptoms
  • Perinatal Depression: depression symptoms that occur during pregnancy and after birth (combining previously recognized disorders known as Prenatal Depression and Postpartum Depression)
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD): symptoms occur during the seven days before menstruation and disappear within a few days after the start of the woman’s period
  • Psychotic Depression: similar to Major Depression, but featuring manifestations of psychosis, such as hallucinations, delusions and hearing voices
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): depression symptoms during a specific season of the year (usually winter)

Variations of Bipolar Disorder

Just as there isn’t only one type of depressive disorder, bipolar disorder actually encompasses a few different diagnoses of its own. The two levels of bipolar disorder and the most obvious parallel are:

  • Bipolar I Disorder: Doctors can diagnose this level of bipolar disorder when a patient has had at least one extended manic episode, even if he or she has yet to experience a depressive episode.
  • Bipolar II Disorder: A diagnosis when a patient has had at least one depressive episode and a period of an elevated mood known as “hypomania,” which is not as extreme as full-blown mania, nor does it last as long. Bipolar II patients typically experience longer depressive episodes and shorter periods of hypomania.
  • Cyclothymic Disorder: A mild mood disorder compared to the others, cyclothymia most closely resembles bipolar disorder, but is the less-severe cousin. Cyclothymia is characterized by mood swings from mild depression to hypomania. The symptoms are less intense than in bipolar disorder.

Do Bipolar Disorder and Major Depression Sufferers Take the Same Kinds of Medication?

Since bipolar disorder is quite similar to major depression, you might wonder if sufferers of each take the same kinds of medication. While some doctors may focus on treating the depression symptoms in bipolar disorder, and thus give the patient an antidepressant, the fact is the medication typically is not the same between the two disorders.

Major depression suffers typically take antidepressants from the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) families. Examples include brand names such as Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, Cymbalta, Pristiq and Effexor.

Meanwhile, bipolar disorder sufferers typically take mood stabilizers, anticonvulsants and/or antipsychotics. Examples of mood-stabilizing drugs (with common brand names in parentheses) include:

  • Carbamazepine (Carbatrol, Epitol and Equetro)
  • Lamotrigine (Lamictal)
  • Valproic acid (Depakene)
  • Lithium
  • Divalproex sodium (Depakote)

The first three on this list fall under the anticonvulsant classification.

A few drugs that have been FDA-approved specifically for bipolar disorder are:

  • Fluoxetine combined with olanzapine (Symbyax)
  • Lurasidone (Latuda) – can be taken alone or with lithium or valproic acid
  • Quetiapine fumarate (Seroquel)

Where to Turn for Dual Diagnosis Help?

Many sufferers of major depression and bipolar disorder fall victim to drug or alcohol abuse. This is known as a dual diagnosis. Thankfully, many treatment centers around the country are committed to treating mental health disorders alongside substance abuse issues.

If you or someone you love could use help in finding the right treatment program for addiction along with any form of depression, Fight Addiction Now can help refine your search in real time. Get in touch with us today by starting a new chat (click on “Start Chat Now”), by sending us a message through our contact page or picking up the phone and calling: 1-844-313-4448.

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One thought on “What Is the Difference Between Depression and Bipolar Disorder?

  1. Darrien Hansen

    I had no idea that people with bipolar disorders typically shift moods once or twice every year. Whenever I visit my cousin, it feels like I’m talking to a different person since he changes from energetic to impatient and emotional. Maybe it would be best for him to receive a psychological evaluation to determine what kind of disorder he has.


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