What's the difference between bipolar disorder and ADHD?

The human brain is a complex organ, and can sometimes be challenging for even the smartest mind to understand.

ADHD and bipolar differences in adults [MeloCymru]

Two conditions that can sometimes appear similar but have distinct underlying causes are bipolar disorder and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).


While they may share some overlapping symptoms, their root causes and treatment approaches are quite distinct.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a mental health condition characterized by significant shifts in mood, energy levels, and activity patterns. These mood swings, known as episodes, can range from periods of intense euphoria and hyperactivity (mania or hypomania) to profound sadness and lethargy (depression).


During a manic episode, an individual might experience:

  • Elevated or irritable mood
  • Inflated sense of self-importance or grandiosity
  • Increased energy and decreased need for sleep
  • Racing thoughts and pressured speech
  • Flight of ideas (jumping rapidly from one thought to another)
  • Engaging in risky or impulsive behaviours (spending sprees, reckless driving)
  • Poor judgment and difficulty focusing on tasks

The duration of manic episodes can vary depending on the specific type of bipolar disorder. Some individuals may experience rapid cycling, where episodes occur frequently within a short period.


These episodes are characterised by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating, and suicidal thoughts.

The depressive episode of bipolar disorder presents a stark contrast to the manic phase.

It's important to note that bipolar disorder exists on a spectrum. Bipolar I disorder is characterised by at least one manic episode, while bipolar II involves periods of hypomania (a less severe form of mania) and depression. Cyclothymia, another variant, involves frequent but less severe mood swings.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on the other hand, is a neurodevelopmental condition that primarily affects attention, focus, and impulse control. Individuals with ADHD can experience:

  • Inattention: Difficulty focusing on tasks, easily distracted by sights or sounds, difficulty completing tasks, forgetting instructions.
  • Hyperactivity: Excessive fidgeting or restlessness, difficulty remaining seated, feeling like they are "on the go" all the time.
  • Impulsivity: Acting without thinking, difficulty waiting their turn, blurting out answers before questions are finished.
  • Disorganisation: Individuals with ADHD may have difficulty organising tasks and keeping track of belongings.

ADHD can make it challenging to succeed in school, work, and relationships. Symptoms can also lead to frustration and low self-esteem.

  • Predominantly inattentive presentation: Inattention is the primary symptom, with hyperactivity and impulsivity being less prominent.
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation: Hyperactivity and impulsivity are the main concerns, with inattention playing a less significant role.
  • Combined presentation: A combination of significant inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms.

While often diagnosed in childhood, ADHD can persist into adulthood. The presentation may change over time, with hyperactivity becoming less pronounced and inattention remaining a core challenge.


While both bipolar disorder and ADHD can cause difficulties in daily life, their core characteristics and underlying causes differ significantly. Here's a breakdown of some key distinctions:

1. Mood vs. behavior:

The defining characteristic of bipolar disorder is the presence of significant mood swings. ADHD, on the other hand, primarily affects behaviour and attention regulation.

2. Episode vs. chronic:

Bipolar disorder involves distinct episodes (manic, depressive) that can last for weeks or months, interspersed with periods of normal mood. ADHD is a chronic condition with symptoms that are typically present daily.


3. Triggers:

Manic episodes in bipolar disorder can sometimes be triggered by life events, sleep deprivation, or substance abuse. ADHD symptoms tend to be more consistent and less influenced by external factors.

4. Response to treatment:

Bipolar disorder is typically treated with a combination of medication and therapy. ADHD can be managed effectively with medication, behavioural therapy, and educational support.


It's important to remember that both bipolar disorder and ADHD exist on spectrums. The presentation of symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Additionally, it's not uncommon for someone to have both conditions (co-occurring diagnoses).

If you suspect you or someone you know might have bipolar disorder or ADHD, get professional help. A qualified mental health professional can conduct a thorough evaluation and recommend the most appropriate treatment plan.

With proper diagnosis and treatment, both bipolar disorder and ADHD can be effectively managed. People with these conditions can live fulfilling and productive lives.


This content was created with the help of an AI model and verified by the writer.


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