What Bipolar Disorder Looks Like in Adults

Learn the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder in adults, as well as warning signs that may present at home or at work.

A cartoon woman feeling more positive after bipolar treatment

Though experts now know bipolar disorder may present as early as age 6, most patients don’t report their first episode until age 18 or older. The average age of onset is 17.7 years old, but the treatment doesn’t typically begin until age 27 — meaning that many people with bipolar disorder are left untreated for a decade or more.

Since proper diagnosis is the golden ticket to receiving proper — and, in many cases, lifesaving — treatment, it’s important that you know what bipolar disorder looks like in everyday life. Though the terms “mania” and “depression” are easy for most of us to understand in the abstract, it can be hard to identify when we see it in ourselves or a loved one. Here are some examples of what bipolar disorder might look like in the real world, both at home and at work.

Symptoms at Home

Bipolar disorder affects patients’ relationships, use of substances, and sleep. During a manic phase, you might notice:

> High sex drive — engaging in promiscuous sex with strangers, desiring or demanding sex with a partner more frequently than normal, or masturbating excessively
> Increased pornography use
> Little or no satisfaction with sex, despite the higher frequency; always feeling like you “need more”
> Other risky behaviors, like drug use, excessive drinking, or gambling
> Spending more money than normal; making impulsive and extravagant purchases like jewelry, cars, or other luxury items outside of your normal budget
> Bursts of “creative energy” — might embark on ambitious art projects, often bouncing between several at once or leaving others unfinished
> Feelings of intense optimism or invincibility; feeling like you can and should do anything your heart desires
> Anger with friends or family for discouraging or not understanding your ideas and impulses
> Impatience with your spouse for things like “talking slowly” or “wanting to stay in”
> Talking over others more than normal; most conversations becoming wholly “one-sided” after a few minutes
> Sleeping little or not at all

During a depressive phase, you might notice:

> Little or no interest in sex, even with a loving partner
> For men, erectile dysfunction may occur
> Sleeping too much, or feeling like you never want to get out of bed; in some cases, experiencing insomnia
> Feeling tired all the time, no matter how much (or how little) you slept
> Feeling guilty, hopeless, or full of despair
> Drastically reduced energy for everyday activities, like preparing food or interacting with friends
> Uninterested in normal hobbies, particularly those that tend to go into overdrive during a manic phase
> Dramatic changes in appetite, either eating too much or too little
> Suicidal thoughts; may attempt suicide

Symptoms at Work

Bipolar disorder at the workplace will appear similar to the symptoms listed above, but the nature of your relationship with your coworkers and boss may change its outward appearance a little. While working during a manic phase, you might notice:

> Jumping in during meetings more often than normal, talking over coworkers, or talking so fast that no one can understand you
> Laughing or joking more frequently and more exuberantly than usual; turning into the “office clown”
> Arguing with your boss over even the tiniest criticisms, or blowing up at coworkers over perceived slights
> Impulsively taking on more work or agreeing to lead new projects, often failing to complete them

During a depressive phase, you might notice:

> Trouble concentrating on daily tasks; mindlessly browsing the Internet instead of writing a report, for example
> Unable to meet deadlines or juggle multiple assignments at once
> Calling out of work more than normal; making up excuses for not finishing tasks or maintaining regular attendance
> Feeling hopeless about your career, your future at the company, or your life in general while at work
> Getting frequently irritated with coworkers for normal behavior
> Unusually anxious about day-to-day interactions with your boss; assuming every email will be a reprimand, for example

Doctors call bipolar disorder a “kindling” illness — meaning that it gets progressively worse as time goes on. Without treatment, episodes are longer and more impairing, and the time between episodes is shorter. This is why physicians strongly encourage people to stay on their medications, even when they feel well. It is vital, in the long run, to prevent episodes rather than treat them.


Identifying and Treating Bipolar Disorder
William Dodson, M.D., explains how to navigate between bipolar disorder and ADHD, two closely related and often overlapping conditions. Listen now!

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