In today’s digital age, it is hard to not self-diagnose. Especially with the openness of apps like TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, etc. People are constantly talking about their symptoms that the average person could be experiencing as well. But does that mean you are bipolar too?
In the past several decades, doctors have made significant progress in understanding bipolar disorder and how to accurately recognize and diagnose it. The condition was once often confused with other disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia. Modern medicine has led to a more comprehensive understanding of mental disorders, allowing doctors to identify the signs and symptoms of bipolar depression, hypomania, and mania much more readily, and, in most cases, treat the disorder safely and effectively.
In our day-to-day lives, most of us are used to our doctors making diagnoses by using specialized blood tests or other forms of laboratory analysis. In most cases, however, lab tests and imaging tests will not be useful in diagnosing bipolar disorder. In fact, a doctor’s greatest asset is your willingness to communicate openly regarding your feelings, behaviors, and lifestyle habits, all of which play an important part in the diagnostic process.
How Can a Doctor Diagnose Bipolar Disorder?
Only by closely observing symptoms and noting their duration, severity, and frequency can a bipolar disorder diagnosis be made. Occasional mood swings from day to day or from time to time are not necessarily indicative of bipolar disorder. A more likely diagnostic indicator is experiencing extended periods when your mood is unusually elevated, or you feel unusually irritable, coupled with an increase in energy, sleeplessness, and racing or uncontrollable thoughts. Psychiatrists assess a patient’s symptoms based on specific criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5.
You will be asked about your family and personal history of mental illness, including bipolar or other mood disorders, while a psychiatrist determines if you suffer from bipolar disorder. An understanding of your family history is helpful for the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, since it may have a genetic component. Despite this, many people with bipolar disorder do not come from families with a history of the disorder. Other questions test reasoning, memory, ability to express yourself, and ability to maintain relationships.
Even though a physical examination can give doctors a picture of someone’s overall health, they still must hear from the patient regarding the signs and symptoms they’re experiencing in order to make a proper diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan.
Do Other Illnesses Exhibit Similar Symptoms to Bipolar Disorder?
Other psychiatric problems can sometimes cause mood swings and impulsive behavior, including:
- Developmental disorders
- Impulse control disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Conduct disorders
- Certain anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder
It is important to note that psychosis (delusions and hallucinations) can also occur in conditions other than bipolar disorder, such as schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. A person suffering from bipolar disorder may also suffer from additional psychiatric problems, such as anxiety disorders (such as panic attack disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder), substance abuse, or personality disorders that may complicate an illness presentation and require separate treatment.
There are some non-psychiatric illnesses whose signs and symptoms may be similar to those of bipolar disorder, such as thyroid disease, lupus, HIV, syphilis, and other infections. This can complicate making a diagnosis and determining treatment options.
How Should You Prepare Before Seeing a Doctor?
Writing down your symptoms, including those that may suggest depression, hypomania, or mania, is helpful before meeting with your doctor for diagnosis clarification. You should pay particular attention to not only mood changes but also changes in sleep, energy, thinking, speech, and behavior. It is also a good idea to talk to your family members about your health history before meeting with your doctor. When it comes to establishing a suspected diagnosis and prescribing appropriate treatments, family history can be extremely helpful.
You might also consider taking an important friend or family member with you to the doctor’s appointment. There may be times when a family member or a friend may be more aware of a person’s unusual behavior and could describe this to the doctor in greater detail.
Life Adjustment Team Treatment Plans
Outpatient treatment options like LAT’s Intensive Outpatient Program significantly improve outcomes for people with bipolar disorder. We bring personalized, one-to-one support to you where you are to meet your unique healthcare needs. In addition, our hands-on group and individual Cognitive and Dialectical Behavior Therapy sessions help clients find ways to accept themselves, feel safe, and manage their emotions to help regulate potentially harmful or destructive behaviors.