Define Bipolar Spectrum?

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

I have suffered with depression a lot in my life. I have been on and off meds and it keeps coming back. I told my family doc and she tried different meds and still it seemed to work for about a month and then nothing. She put me on the maximum amount of wellbutrin (450mg) and .5mg klonapin and said she thinks I need a mood stabilizer so I contacted a psychiatry practice to try and understand this more.

I have horrible mood swings, I get irritated very easily. I start the day feel great, I get my cleaning done, play with my kids and then i start to get irritable and depressed which just leads to more irribility and frustration because i can’t stop feeling angry and depressed.

My doc appt yesterday i reviewed my family and self history. It was extremely difficult to talk about everything but i told her that i go between depression, irribility, anger, anxiety to feeling like i can take on anything (more creative/clear thoughts).

She told me i definitely fall somewhere on the bipolar spectrum but never explained that. What does “falling on the bipolar spectrum actually mean?” Does it mean I am actually bipolar? What is the bipolar spectrum?

A. Your doctor may have used the phrase “bipolar spectrum” because she believes that you have bipolar disorder but is not sure which type. The three main types include bipolar I disorder, bipolar II and cyclothymic disorder. Bipolar I is considered the most severe and cyclothymic disorder, the least severe.

Individuals who have bipolar I disorder experience episodes of mania. People with mania feel euphoria, grandiosity and emotionally “high.” They can also feel irritable. Their mood shifts rapidly. They can feel euphoric one moment and then quickly feel depressed and angry. Their behavior is erratic and they often behave in irresponsible ways. Psychosis can also be present.

Individuals who are diagnosed with bipolar II also experience mood instability but not to the same degree that occurs with bipolar I disorder. Typically, more depressive symptoms are present than hypomania symptoms.

Cyclothymic disorder is a chronic mood disorder that is present for at least two years. Like bipolar I and bipolar II, it is characterized by fluctuating mood disturbances and hypomania but the symptoms are less severe and less frequent. Many consider it a milder form of bipolar disorder.

You take medication for your symptoms but that is not enough. Psychotherapy is an important treatment for mood disorders. Medication can stabilize your symptoms but psychotherapy allows you to address the underlying problem. You found it difficult to detail your family and self-history which tells me that you have yet to address the emotional pain that may be at the heart of some of your symptoms.

I would recommend psychotherapy. Please consider it. Comprehensive psychological treatment involves both psychotherapy and medication. I wish you the best of luck.

Dr. Kristina Randle
Mental Health & Criminal Justice Blog

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 28 Jul 2013

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2013). Define Bipolar Spectrum?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 1, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/07/28/define-bipolar-spectrum/

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