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What does hypomania look like in a person with cyclothymic disorder?

Put simply, hypomania is an abnormally elevated mood state. What does that mean? Well, basically everything gets amped up! But there's much more to it than meets the eye. Keep reading to find out what the symptoms look like in real life, and what the differences are between euphoric and dysphoric hypomania in cyclothymic disorder.

What Is hypomania?

People who suffer from cyclothymic disorder swing back and forth between an abnormally low mood (or a depressed state) and an abnormally high mood (in which they will present symptoms of hypomania).

The NHS website lists the symptoms associated with mania and hypomania ...

Describing what symptoms of hypomania actually look like in someone who suffers from cyclothymia, however – is tricky.

The symptoms are not always obvious in real life from the clinical descriptions you'll read on most websites by health professionals.

Firstly, symptoms manifest differently in different people ...

For example, not everybody who suffers from cyclothymia has the pleasure of experiencing the more "euphoric" symptoms that come with a hypomanic state.

Some of us get the rough end of the stick instead - like the overwhelming racing thoughts, the irritability, impulsivity and let's not forget the dreaded reactivity (and sometimes accompanying white-heat rage) that can lead us to lose friends, lovers, jobs and more.

Secondly, many of the symptoms go unnoticed ...

This is because they get attributed to a person's personality or passed off as character flaws.

If you don't know that what you're looking at is a mental illness, then the natural instinct is to try to explain feelings, thoughts and behaviours by linking them to external events, interactions with people, or by just putting it down to the way that person is.

We love to make sense of things, but mental illness is still such a taboo subject that it's not the first thing we think of.

And thirdly, symptoms can be very subtle ...

Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about cyclothymic disorder, and why many people often go undiagnosed, is that the symptoms are sometimes almost invisible to anyone who doesn't understand mood disorders or mental illness.

These symptoms often appear to be very similar to what people experience through normal emotions that may be linked to stressful events, difficult interactions with people, or the influence of alcohol and caffeine.

On the other hand, they can be oh-so-subtle – your best friend could be struggling right in front of your eyes, and you might not have a clue!

Many of us who struggle with mental illnesses like cyclothymia, depression and anxiety, have learnt to be "high-functioning", meaning we know how to hide it!

And sometimes the reason we hide it is because we don't actually realise ourselves that we're ill or that we need support. Instead we're just covering up our "flaws" or "inadequacies".

So what are the symptoms of hypomania in cyclothymia?

The Cyclothymia Workbook by Prentiss Price provides a good list of the symptoms of hypomania:

  • Elevated, overly gregarious, or irritable mood

  • Increased self-esteem, grandiosity

  • Reduced need for sleep, feeling rested with only a few hours of sleep

  • Increased talkativeness, feeling pressure to keep talking

  • Racing thoughts, a continuous stream of ideas that may be fragmentary

  • Being easily distracted

  • Increase in activity that is goal-directed

  • Being overly involved in pleasurable activities that are potentially risky or could have painful consequences

You might find yourself thinking - but these are things that anybody could experience, right?

Well, it's true! You don't have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to find yourself up working passionately on a project into the early hours of the morning, or feel like your head is going to burst because you have so much to think about.

One of the main differences though, is that people who suffer from cyclothymia experience many of these symptoms together, and often not in context with what's happening in their life. This can make their responses or behaviour appear irrational, dramatic, or strange.

There's also the cycling nature of hypomania and depression to take into account, and the fact that these mood states do not truly represent that person's "norm" or baseline mood.

For example – you may be a naturally confident and sociable person who loves the sound of your own voice and enjoys showing off, spending money, indulging in risky activities like gambling, and generally living life to the full ...

This doesn't mean that you are hypomanic or that you're suffering from a mental illness like cyclothymia. This is because these are all characteristics that are consistent with your personality or temperament. They are your "norm".

A person with cyclothymia, on the other hand, may turn into this type of person periodically according to which way their mood is swinging, but it's not who they naturally are. This may make their behaviour seem out of the ordinary to the people closest to them, whilst causing problems in different areas of their life.

Keep in mind that if you only mix with certain people when your mood is elevated, then they won't have anything else to compare it to, and probably won't think you're behaving out of the ordinary.

A key defining factor in the disorder is that the elevated mood is likely to interfere with the person's daily life and their interactions with people in a negative way.

Don't forget too, that at some point this person is going to come off their "high" and experience the opposite end of the mood spectrum, with symptoms of depression. When your mood plummets like that, it's difficult to deal with the repercussions of your hypomanic mood...

Maybe you'll have to cancel a few dates your hypo-self lined up, or shut down a big project you can't cope with, or pay back big credit card bills you ran up? Maybe you had a major bust-up with a close friend or relative, behaved unprofessionally at work, or cheated on your partner?

Swinging back and forth between different mood states without warning or reason can be disorientating and destructive.

If left unmanaged or untreated it can have a serious effect on a person's life, impacting their sense of self-identity, self-esteem, and other people's willingness to trust or rely on them.

My experiences of hypomania in cyclothymia

It can be interesting to learn about how hypomania affects people differently, so I thought I would share some of my own experiences.

The dark side of hypomania ...

For me, a hypomanic state tends to be more destructive than a depressive state. Depression can feel like hell, but hypomania is what causes my life to spiral out of control.

I've lost jobs, feuded with family, destroyed my romantic relationships, and lost my sense of self-identity over and over and over again because of hypomania.

It can feel positively amazing, don't get me wrong! Sometimes I feel invincible and super happy. The levels of creativity and productivity are my favourite things about hypomania. I think I'm probably more fun to be around too, because I'm more talkative, confident, funny and spontaneous.

But hypomania can also be an excruciating experiencing, causing me to behave very badly and hurt the people I love or care about, often without meaning or wanting to.

Also, when hypomania gets to the point where I'm no longer able to be productive because my mind is racing, I'm distracted, I can't focus and I'm feeling irritable because nobody else is on my level – things can get dark pretty quickly.

My moods swing back and forth very frequently. My mood swings also tend to speed up and intensify when I'm exposed to stressful situations or triggered by certain types of people, and this can make me feel like I am going crazy ...

It's very disorientating to be lethargic one day and then hyperactive the next – or have positive, exciting and ambitious ideas one moment only to have the negative thoughts take over and sabotage all of my plans, making the immediate future feel very bleak indeed.

When my mood lifts after a particularly difficult depressed state it can feel like such a relief, but that's rarely a good thing for very long. Such a sense of relief is often so strong that it can lead to me spiralling off out of control into hypomania territory before I've had the chance to realise it's happening and take precautions.

This is when I can end up experiencing such intense emotions that I become irrational and reactive very quickly ...

People have described me as going straight from zero to ten out of nowhere.

In this reactive state it's very easy for me to fall out with people because I have so little control over such intense emotions. I can behave unfairly, make poor decisions, and generally end up in the realm of total self-sabotage. It's not fun, for anyone.

It just makes me feel so sad. You can't really explain to people why or how a situation escalated, without it sounding like you're trying to avoid taking responsibility for the damage you've caused. And the worst thing is that the damage is often unfixable.

Before you know it you've been fired, dumped, or blocked on social media. You feel like a terrible person, having failed at functioning like a normal human being.

You know that you've messed up, made people feel angry or hurt, but there's nothing you can do about it, except try to take responsibility for your actions and make them believe that you are truly sorry.

Some people are kind and have a higher capacity for understanding, but most people are permanently damaged by the experience, and won't be able to bring themselves to trust you again.

It can feel a bit like you gain a reputation for being something that you know deep down just isn't you. Or at least, it isn't who you want to be.

What's euphoric hypomania like?

I also get the euphoric side of hypomania, but in my experience, that can also have awful consequences.

Sometimes my increased levels of productivity and motivation cause me to focus on entirely irrelevant activities at the expense of things that are more important.

I can passionately develop new interests and become obsessed with new projects. Often I find that my mind is racing with thoughts and new ideas. It can be difficult to keep up with them.

I've been accused many times of being "flakey", having "whims", and not taking life or work seriously. The irony of it is that during a hypomanic state I really am taking things seriously. Like really, really seriously!

The problem of course is that I am taking the wrong things seriously ... a new business venture that has materialised out of nowhere, but which feels like I have finally found my calling – only to discover after my mood has dipped that it was a stupid idea, has created a massive dent in my wallet, and distracted me from a looming deadline related to my real job that pays the bills and keeps a roof over my head!

I really do want to and aim to take life and work seriously, but my illness seems to sabotage my attempts to get anywhere with anything ...

  • I multitask until my actual productivity becomes completely diluted and I feel absolutely overwhelmed.

  • Projects end up unfinished and abandoned.

  • New business ideas trail off after I have spent hours working on creating websites or blogs for them.

  • I end up attracting lots of new work or making too many social plans, but I can't see any of it through once my elevated mood dips.

  • I have to cancel arrangements and extend deadlines, making me look unreliable, which I hate!

Impulse control is also a thing with hypomania – especially euphoric hypomania ...

When you're having a good time and you feel great it's easy for anybody to overdo things, right? Well, add euphoric hypomania to the mix and you don't stand a chance.

Impulse control can reveal itself in many different ways, from your spending habits, eating or drinking habits, not sticking to healthy daily routines, staying up until the early hours of the morning absorbed in some project or activity, flirtatiousness, downright promiscuity, and all sorts of other risky behaviours.

I tend to pay less attention to how much I'm spending, and I'll buy extravagant things I don't need or that I'll lose interest in as soon as the hypomania passes. Often I'll also be in full 'obsessive mode' which means I can't stop thinking about something until I've bought it ...

I'll literally spend hours, days, sometimes even weeks obsessing over a product. I'll research the life out of it, watch every YouTube video I can find to see other people using the product, read all the reviews, track down every single place it's being sold, and I won't be able to relax until I've bought it, or my mood dips back into depression. And even then sometimes I'll buy it anyway in the hope it'll make me feel better.

A lack of impulse control is also the reason I don't keep alcohol or sweet things in my home. I have limited self-control in a normal state, but add hypomania to the mix and there will definitely be a binge session in sight and everything will be on the menu if the food and drink is in easy reach. It's a horrible combination of impulsiveness and compulsiveness.

I don't know whether there might be a comorbid eating disorder at the root of this behaviour though. People who are diagnosed with cyclothymic or bipolar disorder often have comorbid disorders attached to a diagnosis.

The aftermath of hypomania

Cyclothymic hypomania might generally be described as getting very carried away, with all manner of things, without really knowing it. And let's not forget the anxiety and feelings of remorse that follow!

Coming down from a hypomanic state can sometimes feel like having a hangover. You know that feeling of dread where you start to recall all of the drunken things you did? I get the same sense of guilt and when I realise that I've overspent, buying things I didn't need or really even want.

There is anxiety, remorse, and humiliation when I recall being so full of myself or so convinced of something that I behaved recklessly, selfishly, or with a sense of self-righteousness, self-importance or misplaced injustice.

I'm often mortified by things I've said in the aftermath of arguments, when at the time, I felt that all of my points were valid, and like I had the right to speak my mind and tell it as it is, regardless of who I might be hurting or offending.

Sometimes I just feel a bit stupid, embarrassed, and exposed, because I was excitable, hyperactive, and may have behaved like a child or talked too much.

Other people don't often think much of it to be honest. Maybe they didn't even notice my elevated mood and they were just enjoying my company. It's nice to be around someone who is full of energy and enthusiasm, who is interested and engaged, or who is simply in a really good mood. But after the event, I know better, and I have to try and believe that I didn't make a fool of myself.

Read more on the aftermath of hypomania

When you suffer from cyclothymia and you experience hypomanic symptoms it's like reverting back to being an adolescent or a child, and this can feel embarrassing after the event ...

Everything, from emotions to feelings, thoughts and experiences, feel heightened. The leaves on the trees have a glow about them, my imagination is soaring, the voices in my head are all talking at once, and I just want to break out into song and dance!

Yet on the flip side, I feel restless, I can't focus on anything, I am irritable and tense and snappy, likely to fly into a rage or have a meltdown and break out in tears, just like I used to do in my late teens, when it was more acceptable.

Bedtime can be the worst because there's no getting to sleep with so many thoughts racing through your head - random snippets of songs on repeat, conversations having minds of their own, daydreams taking over, ideas shooting off in all directions, a relentless inner-monologue, mundane reminders, to-do lists, memories, and much, much more. But lack of sleep has a knock-on effect ...

You may not feel it at the time, but when your mood crashes, the comedown is tough and your body and brain suffer – but depression is a whole other blog post!

Find out what depression looks like in a person with cyclothymic disorder.

Don't forget to subscribe to the blog for new post updates – and if you learnt something new or interesting, share this post and help to raise awareness about what it's like to live with a mental illness.

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