Mood Swings vs Mood Disorders

There are two common types of mood disorders: depression and bipolar disorder. Mood disorders are more prevalent than you may think, affecting as many as 44 million Americans. Mental health experts believe bipolar disorder and depression stem from an imbalance in chemical activity in the brain, although environmental factors may also play a role.

Mood disorders are called brain disorders because they originate in the brain. In reality, mood disorders affect the entire body. Left untreated, they can be debilitating and even potentially fatal. Nearly one in six people with severe, untreated depression will die by suicide.

Bipolar Disorder

We casually use the expression mood swings to describe someone when their mood fluctuates frequently. However, a mood swing is the medical term that describes extreme changes in mood, thought, energy, and behavior of people with bipolar disorder. It helps to think about mood along a continuum of high to low energy states. At one end (pole) is mania, at the other, depression.

Mania is a high-energy state during which people with bipolar disorder experience an elevated mood and are motivated and excitable. As the energy level during a manic mood swing increases, the person's mood may degenerate into an agitated and psychotic state.

In contrast, depression is a low-energy state. During depressive mood swings, people with bipolar disorder are sad and lack motivation and enthusiasm. A depressive bipolar can go from simply feeling bad to being unable to get out of bed.

Manic and depressive mood swings can last just a few hours to several months.


Depression is a unipolar disorder. Unlike bipolar mood swings, people with depression remain depressed for an extended period and may never experience periods of mania.

What distinguishes normal, everyday mood swings from true depression is the intensity of the mood, how long it lasts, and how much it interferes in life. If your symptoms last longer than two weeks, you are probably suffering from depression.

Depression is marked by a persistent sad mood and feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and inappropriate guilt. A depressed person may experience changes in appetite and sleeping patterns, and lose interest in activities he or she once enjoyed. Depression makes concentration difficult, causes fatigue, and even triggers physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches.

While mild mood swings are normal, extreme or prolonged mood swings may indicate a mental health disorder. If you believe your mood swings are more than a reaction to life's typical ups and downs, talk with your physician as soon as possible. Mood disorders are highly treatable.


Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. "About Mood Disorders." Web. 5 February 2009.

National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Mental Health. "Breaking Ground, Breaking Through:

The Strategic Plan for Mood Disorders Research." Web.

Nemade, Rashmi Ph.D., and Dombeck, Mark Ph.D. "Introduction to Bipolar Disorder and Mood Disorders." Web.

National Mental Health Information Center. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services. "Mood Disorders." Web. June 2006.