ADHD vs Bipolar: Know the difference

Inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, sleeping problems, racing thoughts and moodiness. These are all typical symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They are also common symptoms of bipolar disorder – a mental illness known for severe mood swings and depression. But how do you tell the difference?

Studies estimate that 20% of people with ADHD will develop bipolar disorder. Conversely, 70% of people with bipolar disorder also have ADHD. The high comorbidity rate and overlap in symptoms make these two conditions difficult to distinguish and diagnose. ADHD is ten times more common and more likely to be recognised while bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed. It is critical to know the difference and get an independent but coordinated treatment plan for both.

Untreated ADHD can be challenging but living with a misdiagnosed ADHD and bipolar combination can be dangerous. However, with an accurate diagnosis, the ADHD and bipolar combination can be treated successfully. This will help patients feel more stable in mood and in their ability to live fulfilling lives in their roles as spouses, parents and employees.

One fundamental difference is that ADHD mainly affects attention and behaviour while bipolar symptoms mainly affect mood. Here are five more differences to help you understand both conditions.

  1. Mood shift triggers
    ADHD symptoms are circumstantial emotional reactions experienced in relation to life events. Bipolar mood shifts are driven by the internal emotional state. Individuals can be on top of the world or down in the dumps without any connection to external factors. People with ADHD are able to manage their emotions by changing their environment.
  2. Speed and duration of mood shifts
    People with ADHD can experience rapid, complete mood shifts every few hours. Bipolar mood shifts are cyclical and more enduring. The extreme euphoric highs and depressive lows are destructive and it can take days or weeks to move from one state to another.
  3. Onset and consistency of symptoms
    ADHD symptoms are lifelong and are present from an early age. Unlike ADHD, bipolar symptoms come in phases before returning to normal mood levels. These symptoms develop over time and are rarely evident at birth.
  4. Sense of reality
    With bipolar disorder, the sense of self can become grandiose or narcissistic. Thoughts are also often detached from reality, which is not a symptom of ADHD, but rather of severe euphoria or depression.
  5. Impulsivity drivers
    ADHD impulsivity is driven by things the individual wants to do. In bipolar individuals, it is driven by euphoric episodes. This can lead to self-destructive behaviours such as hyper-sexuality, substance abuse, reckless driving and conflict with others. When mood levels drop back down to depressive lows, these individuals would have no desire to pursue these behaviours.

The importance of an accurate diagnosis can’t be overstated. With a holistic and dual treatment plan, therapy and life management, individuals with both ADHD and bipolar disorder can live healthy and fulfilling lives.

If you suspect that you or a loved one might have ADHD, set the record straight with this self-assessment. If you are unsure about the symptoms or suspect that bipolar disorder might be present, speak to a medical professional.