Bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are both mental health issues that may be rooted in differences in the brain. They are in separate categories when it comes to mental health disorders, but they share some similarities. Plus, they aren’t mutually exclusive, and it’s possible for a person to have both disorders at the same time. How can you tell the difference between these two issues? Learn more about the differences and similarities between ADHD and bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that’s characterized by extreme highs and lows. More specifically, you may experience depressive symptoms and manic symptoms. Depressive symptoms may look like major depressive disorder, but people with bipolar disorder will also experience manic episodes, which are periods of heightened mood, energy, anxiety, or paranoia. There are two types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I and bipolar II. Bipolar I is diagnosed when a person has at least one manic episode, even if they haven’t experienced a depressive episode.
Bipolar II involves mood shifts with one major depressive episode without a manic episode. Bipolar disorder is often thought to involve quick mood swings and flipping back and forth between happiness and sadness at any given moment. While that’s possible, it often manifests as days, weeks, or even months of depression, followed by a few days of mania. Mania often involves elevated moods, but it can cause friction with friends and family members. It can also cause you to miss meals and sleep that you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Depressive stages can cause lethargy, fatigue, and anhedonia (loss of joy).
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a difference in brain development that affects a person’s ability to maintain attention, sit still, resist impulses. It’s thought that ADHD may be caused by dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that’s involved in reward and motivation. Dopamine can help maintain your focus by supplying a steady stream of reward through tasks. One possible explanation for ADHD is that people with the disorder have low levels of dopamine that causes them to struggle to stay motivated through a task. When other stimulating sources of dopamine occur, they can be difficult to resist.
ADHD can lead to complications like depression, substance use disorders, anxiety problems, social isolation, and struggling at school or work. However, ADHD is treatable with therapy and pharmaceutical options.
On the surface, these disorders may seem like they couldn’t be more different. One is a mood disorder, while the other is an attention problem that’s likely present from birth. However, they share some common symptoms. Bipolar disorder may look the most like ADHD during a manic phase. Mania often comes with hyperactivity and the loss of your ability to focus on day-to-day tasks. Common symptoms include:
ADHD can also cause some complications that look like the depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder. ADHD can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, which may mirror the symptoms of a major depressive episode of bipolar disorder.
However, there are some key differences between the two disorders. ADHD isn’t likely to cause extreme mood shifts as bipolar disorder can. ADHD is also fairly constant and consistent, while bipolar symptoms can change from week to week.
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National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, July). Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019, September). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml