What types of bipolar disorder are there?

Depending on the way you experience different bipolar moods and symptoms, and how severely they affect you, your doctor my diagnose you with a particular type of bipolar disorder. The table below explains some terms your doctor might use:

Diagnosis What it means?
Bipolar I You may be told you have bipolar I if you have experienced at least one episode of mania which has lasted longer than a week. You might also have experienced depressive episodes, although not everyone does.
Bipolar II You may be told you have bipolar II if you have experienced both: at least one episode of severe depression; and symptoms of hypomania.
Cyclothymia You may be told you have cyclothymia if: you have experienced both hypomanic and depressive mood states over the course of two years or more; your symptoms aren’t severe enough to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of bipolar I or bipolar II. This can be a difficult diagnosis to receive, because you may feel that you are being told your symptoms are ‘not serious enough’. But in fact, cyclothymia can have a serious impact on your life.

Using these terms can help both you and health professionals discuss your diagnosis and treatment more specifically. If your doctor ever uses words or phrases you do not understand, you can ask them to explain.

“[I have] cyclothymia. It can make you feel more like it must be all in your head as the symptoms are often not as extreme as bipolar.”

How often do bipolar episodes occur?

This can depend on a lot of things, such as:

  • Your exact diagnosis
  • How well you’re able to manage your symptoms
  • Whether certain situations or experiences can trigger your episodes (for example, you might find that getting very little sleep while going through a stressful life event could trigger an episode of mania)
  • How you define an episode personally

What is normal for you can also change over time. However, many people find that:

  • Mania starts suddenly and lasts between two weeks and four or five months
  • Depressive episodes can last longer – sometimes for several months

It is also common to have stable or neutral periods in between episodes. This does not mean that you have no emotions during this time – just that you are not currently experiencing mania, hypomania or depression, or that you are managing your symptoms effectively. You might find you feel stable for years in between episodes, although for some people periods of stability can be much shorter.

“It’s a lot harder coming to terms with being stable […] than I could have imagined. I’ve had to struggle with a ‘new’ identity and way of life after spending so many years thinking the ups and downs of bipolar are ‘normal’.” 

Rapid cycling

You may be told your bipolar is rapid cycling if you have experienced four or more episodes of mania or hypomania followed by depression within a year. This might mean you feel stable for a few weeks between episodes, or that your mood can change as quickly as within the same day, or even the same hour.

Currently, rapid cycling is not officially considered a separate type of bipolar disorder, but more research is necessary to know for sure.

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