Mood shifts, or mood swings, can be natural changes in mood related to everyday circumstances. Mood episodes in bipolar disorder, however, are persistent, uncontrollable emotional states that often impair your ability to function.
Mood swings, also known as mood shifts or mood changes, are considered a natural part of the human experience.
When something exciting happens, for example, you might feel a rush of happiness. If you’re down on sleep, you might feel unreasonably irritable. In a standard day, you can experience multiple mood shifts.
Having abrupt changes in mood doesn’t mean you’re living with bipolar disorder. But disruptive, persistent mood changes may be an indication of a mental health condition.
A mood shift is a general way of describing a noticeable, often sudden, change between moods.
Walking into the kitchen, laughing, only to drop a dish and feel instant frustration and some amount of anger is an example of a natural mood shift.
Mood changes range in experience and severity. They can be brought on or influenced by other factors such as:
- poor sleep
- good or bad news
- anxiety or worry
- excitement or anticipation
- other medical conditions
Mood changes vs. mood disturbance vs. mood instability
Natural mood changes can occur on a spectrum of severity, but they’re often directly linked to circumstances.
Mood disturbance occurs when your mood doesn’t match your circumstances.
Mood instability is a clinical symptom that’s defined by abrupt mood shifts that are unpredictable and often without cause, sometimes accompanied by cognitive impairment.
Mood shifts or mood swings are not a symptom of bipolar disorder unless they meet the criteria to be classified as a “mood episode.”
The length and characteristics of mood episodes set them apart from typical changes in mood.
Bipolar disorder mood episodes are clearly defined by criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR). They can include periods of elevated energy, known as mania, and extremely low energy and mood, known as depression.
They’re usually persistent and last for days or weeks.
Unlike natural mood changes, these feelings may not necessarily have a cause, though they can be triggered by certain stressors for some people.
It’s also possible for you to cycle rapidly between manic, depressive, or neutral moods during episodes. This instability remains for an extended amount of time.
One major difference between typical mood shifts and mood episodes can be seen when you attempt to change them. Someone can’t simply be talked out of a mood episode, whereas a person can generally be calmed down or cheered up after a sudden change in mood.
Mania and depression are the two classic mood types in bipolar disorder. Several clinical mood shift variations include:
- major depression
Under DSM-5-TR criteria, a major depressive episode in bipolar disorder occurs when five or more of the following symptoms are present almost every day during the same 2-week period:
- depressed mood nearly all day
- lack of interest or pleasure in the majority of activities, nearly all day
- significant weight or appetite changes
- sleeping too much or too little
- restlessness or decreased motor function
- lack of energy
- feelings of inappropriate guilt or worthlessness
- recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation
- poor concentration, indecisiveness, or inability to think clearly
Of these symptoms, at least one must be depressed mood or the loss of pleasure in experiences.
Mania is often considered the opposite of depression, but that’s not necessarily the case. Mania can involve feelings or euphoria and happiness, but elevated mood doesn’t mean you’re joyful.
Elevated mood in mania relates to your energy levels. The DSM-5-TR defines it as a distinct period of unusually elevated, irritable, or expansive mood with increased goal-directed activities or energy, present nearly all day, every day for at least 7 days.
Three or more of the following symptoms must be present:
- sense of grandiosity or enhanced self-esteem
- decreased sleep requirements
- excessive talking
- racing thoughts
- increased goal-directed activity or purposeless restlessness
- increased risk-taking and impulsivity
Episodes of major depression and mania are impairing. They can limit your ability to function in important areas of daily life, such as at work, at school, or in your social life.
Hypomania shares clinical criteria with mania. However, symptoms must only be present nearly every day, all day for 4 consecutive days, not 7.
Hypomania symptoms cause distress and impairment to your daily life but are less severe than full mania.
Your experience of mood episodes in bipolar disorder identifies which type of bipolar disorder you’re living with.
Three primary forms exist, per the DSM-5-TR:
- Bipolar I disorder: This type involves at least one experience of mania present almost all day, every day for at least 7 days. A major depressive episode may occur before or after mania but isn’t necessary for a diagnosis. Not everyone living with bipolar I disorder will experience depression.
- Bipolar II disorder: This type is characterized by the presence of at least one major depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode.
- Cyclothymic disorder: In this type, chronic and fluctuating hypomanic and depressive periods present for the majority of time during a 2-year period, with no longer than 2 months without symptoms. Mood symptoms aren’t severe enough to meet the criteria for full manic or major depressive episodes.
Mixed episodes are another way bipolar disorder might present in a person. They’re defined as experiencing both mania or hypomania and depression nearly every day for a
When bipolar symptoms don’t meet any of these criteria but present with patterns of elevated mood or depression, you may be given a diagnosis of “other specified bipolar and related disorder.”
It’s also possible to develop bipolar disorder secondary to another medical condition (bipolar and related disorder due to another medical condition) or as the result of substance use (substance/medication-induced bipolar and related disorder).
Mood changes that are unpredictable, impairing, or without cause may be a sign of underlying medical conditions.
You may be living with a mood disorder like bipolar disorder or experiencing mood instability, a common feature of many other mental and physical health conditions.
It’s OK to speak with your healthcare team any time mood changes are an unwelcome part of your life. Just because they may be natural doesn’t mean that you have to endure them without help.
Your healthcare team or a mental health care professional can help you find ways to manage factors like stress, hormones, or lack of sleep, which may be affecting your mood.