Bipolar disorder can be difficult to understand. Even for people with the disorder it can be very hard to articulate how it feels to be bipolar into words. Whether you’re concerned for yourself or a loved one, or you just want to know more about how to explain bipolar to your loved ones, you’ll find everything you need to know in this article. 

What is Bipolar Disorder? 

Bipolar disorder (previously known as Manic depression or manic depressive disorder) is a mental disorder that is known for causing abnormal shifts in mood, energy, concentration, and activity levels. 

The National Institutes of Mental Health estimate that 2.8% of adults in the US had a bipolar disorder diagnosis in the last 12 month period. This number is probably actually higher than that, as we know that many people do not seek treatment for mental health and would not be included in this data. 

Explain Bipolar Disorder: Manic and Depressive Episodes

There are three specific types of bipolar disorder as defined by the DSM-V. All of these disorders include distinct abnormal changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. 


Before we explain the types of bipolar, there are some words you should understand first that will help explain bipolar disorder better: 

  • Manic Episodes: One of the biggest indicators of bipolar, manic episodes are periods of extremely elevated moods, including but not limited to elation, extreme irritability, or very energized behavior. Manic episodes may include risky behaviors, racing thoughts, and a decreased need for sleep. 
  • Hypomanic Episode: This is a term used to explain a manic episode that is less severe. 
  • Depressive Episodes: Considered the opposite of mania, depressive episodes typically find a person feeling down, depressed, tired, hopeless, and unable to do simple tasks. 

Explaining Bipolar Disorder: The Three Types of Bipolar

People with bipolar disorder are typically given one of the following three diagnoses. 

Bipolar I Disorder 

Bipolar I or Bipolar One is defined specifically by manic episodes that last at least 7 days, or by manic episodes that are so severe that they cause a person to need hospitalization or emergency care. Depressive symptoms lasting at least 2 weeks typically occur in between these manic episodes. 

Bipolar II Disorder

Similar to Bipolar I, Bipolar II is defined by a pattern of depressive symptoms and hypomanic symptoms that are less severe than in bipolar I. 

Cyclothymic Disorder

A diagnosis of Cyclothymic disorder comes after periods of hypomanic symptoms show in between long (2 years) periods of depression

While these three variations of bipolar are the most common, there are certainly people who don’t quite fit the patterns, but are still considered to have Bipolar disorder. We can only be so certain of mental health disorders, and there is room for differences between patients and their presentation. 

How Do I Explain Bipolar Disorder to My Family? 

If you are experiencing bipolar disorder, you may be wondering how to explain bipolar disorder to your boyfriend or girlfriend, children, parents, or other loved ones. You may think that they don’t understand you, but with some open communication you can help them to understand your thoughts and behaviors better. 

Here are some tips to help you explain bipolar to your loved ones so that they can understand you and your bipolar disorder better. 


It’s very possible that your loved ones haven’t met anyone with bipolar disorder before, and aren’t fully educated on what that word means. The information above in this article is a good place to start. Explain what a manic or hypomanic episode looks like for you, and also what it means for you to be in a depressive episode. This is also a good time to let them know that you aren’t  “crazy”. You have a disorder that is treatable and manageable with the right tools. 

Be Clear 

Tell your family and friends what you need from them. People are often very willing to be helpful if they know what is expected or how they can be helpful. If necessary, reassure your loved one that your behaviors are in no way their fault and that they in no way are causing things like outbursts or crying spells. These are symptoms of the disorder. 

With a trusted loved one, you may want to ask for their help in monitoring your symptoms. A person involved in a manic episode may not recognize that it’s happening to them, but the people around them will, and can help in securing medical or psychiatric help if needed. Tell them what to watch out for. Maybe it’s excessive shopping or talking really fast. Whatever symptoms are common for you are important for your family to understand. 

Explain Bipolar only as Much as You Want To 

You don’t have to go into all of the details about your bipolar disorder if you don’t want to. The goal here is to utilize your loved ones to help you when needed, and to help them to understand your behavior. Going deeper than that is something that you can work on with your own therapist

Infographic: How to explain bipolar disorder

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