Bipolar disorder: How to avoid overdiagnosis

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Over the past decade, bipolar disorder (BD) has gained widespread recognition in mainstream culture and in the media,1 and awareness of this condition has increased substantially. As a result, patients commonly present with preconceived ideas about bipolarity that may or may not actually correspond with this diagnosis. In anticipation of seeing such patients, I offer 4 recommendations to help clinicians more accurately diagnose BD.

1. Screen for periods of manic or hypomanic mood. Effective screening questions include:

  • “Have you ever had periods when you felt too happy, too angry, or on top of the world for several days in a row?”
  • “Have you had periods when you would go several days without much sleep and still feel fine during the day?”

If the patient reports irritability rather than euphoria, try to better understand the phenomenology of his or her irritable mood. Among patients who experience mania, irritability often results from impatience, which in turn seems to be secondary to grandiosity, increased energy, and accelerated thought processes.2

2. Avoid using terms with low specificity, such as “mood swings” and “racing thoughts,” when you screen for manic symptoms. If the patient mentions these phrases, do not take them at face value; ask him or her to characterize them in detail. Differentiate chronic, quick fluctuations in affect—which are usually triggered by environmental factors and typically are reported by patients with personality disorders—from more persistent periods of mood polarization. Similarly, anxious patients commonly report having “racing thoughts.”

3. Distinguish patients who have a chronic, ongoing preoccupation with shopping from those who exhibit intermittent periods of excessive shopping and prodigality, which usually are associated with other manic symptoms.3 Spending money in excess is often cited as a classic symptom of mania or hypomania, but it may be an indicator of other conditions, such as compulsive buying.

4. Ask about any increases in goal-directed activity. This is a good way to identify true manic or hypomanic periods. Patients with anxiety or agitated depression may report an increase in psychomotor activity, but this is usually characterized more by restlessness and wandering, and not by a true increase in activity.

Consider a temporary diagnosis

When in doubt, it may be advisable to establish a temporary diagnosis of unspecified mood disorder, until you can learn more about the patient, obtain collateral information from family or friends, and request past medical records.

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