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Exploring Adult ADHD and Bipolar

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/29/2011

Adult ADHD and bipolar share some key similarities and differences that are important to identify and understand. This discussion on differentiating the overlapping symptoms, as well as noting the discernible characteristics, will help avoid a misdiagnosis that might impede effective treatment.

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    Overview

    Distinguishing and diagnosing adult ADHD and bipolar disorder can often times be surprisingly difficult because many of the characteristics can overlap and muddy the waters for both the person suffering from one or the other, and the doctors and therapists charged with diagnosis and treatment. If you’ve ever been diagnosed with either, it would behove you to take a close look at the analysis below to ensure you’re receiving the proper treatment.

    As with any mental disorder, working closely with your doctor and clearly conveying your thoughts, symptoms, and patterns is vital to accurately indentifying what exactly it is that you’re afflicted by. This process can be frustrating and confusing; but with time and patience, you can ultimately find the treatment plan that best suits your needs. Proper identification can be even more clouded by the fact that there are two types of Bipolar (Type I and Type II) and variations of ADHD as well. Also, comorbidity with different kinds of mental illnesses often presents a problem to both patients and clinicians. People can indeed have both at the same time. But for the purposes of this article, listing the similarities and differences in outline form is probably the best approach in your endeavor to seek clarification. There are ways to tell.

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    Similarities between Adult ADHD and Bipolar Disorder

    • The hyperactivity in ADHD can closely resemble the manic phase in Type II Bipolar disorder.
    • Impulsive behavior is part and parcel of both adult ADHD and bipolar individuals.
    • Restlessness, inattention, and excessive motor movements and/or twitching which equates to what seems like a person's inability to sit still.
    • Sleeping problems and racing thoughts.
    • Poor judgment and risky/reckless behavior is common to both be it in spending, thrill-seeking, substance abuse, and many other manifestations of this which are apparent in both.
    • Both disorders may cause impatience, an easily triggered frustration, and irritability.
    • Anger and rage are reported in both.
    • In a bipolar manic phase, the individual might talk excessively, off-topic, and inappropriately, appearing flighty just like someone with ADHD can appear.
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    Differences between Bipolar Disorder and ADHD

    • The sadness and depression exhibited by a bipolar individual lasts significantly longer (and can appear without a reason) than the same kinds of feelings of someone with ADHD who usually recovers more quickly.
    • The extreme cycling nature of bipolar disorder in alternating swings with discernible episodes distinguishes itself over the more chaotic, constantly disruptive pattern seen in ADHD. There are usually normal periods in a bipolar person’s life. Typical ADHD behavior is almost always apparent.
    • The inattention in a bipolar individual is due to the fact that they're too depressed or excited to care while ADHD inattentiveness is due to the brain's inability to focus. You can usually tell the difference there.
    • ADHD anger and rage tends to subside quicker and their cause is usually over-stimulation or frustration whereas in bipolar disorder, anger and rage come from within and last longer. Bipolar people can engage in intentional intentional self-harm and destructiveness.
    • The adult mania phase of bipolar; the euphoria, irritability, grandiosity, racing thoughts, and frenetic activity are easier to recognize.
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    Conclusion

    So primarily it’s the fact that bipolar disorder is a mood disorder which manifests itself in large swings from depression to mania or as in Type II Bipolar, real low feelings of worthlessness and much lower manic phases. ADHD is more of a behavioral disorder, marked by a pattern of reactive behavior to being over-stimulated or frustrated with the brain’s inability to maintain focus and equanimity. Again, it’s important to distinguish because some ADHD medications are very stimulating and they might trigger mania and do more harm than good for bipolar people. Work very closely with your doctor to clearly convey your thoughts, patterns, and behavior to get the proper diagnosis.

    NB: The content of this article is for information purposes and is not intended to replace sound medical advice.

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