Hypomania can be easy to dismiss––it often masquerades as joy, ambition, and productivity. Which is exactly why recognizing your hypomania ‘red flags’ is essential.
Because I have bipolar disorder, I don’t experience the world like everyone else does. My highs are like a jet breaking the sound barrier. My lows are akin to detritus at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Those extremes are easy to recognize, but what about hypomania? It’s a lesser form of mania, and it’s sneaky. It feels great, and it often masquerades as happiness.
When I’m hypomanic, music sounds beautiful, food tastes delicious, and I believe everyone loves me. I think I’m invincible. I frequently refuse to accept when I’m hypomanic. I convince myself and insist to others that I’m just happy. But that’s an illusion. Hypomania isn’t an emotion. It’s a chemical imbalance just like depression or anxiety. And the elation that accompanies it is false. It’s a mirage induced by brain chemistry that’s out of whack.
Hypomania can be easy to dismiss. It often masquerades as joy, ambition, productivity and passion. Because hypomania feels good, it’s tempting to refuse treatment. It’s a high that’s addictive, and, like all addictions, it’s dangerous and unhealthy.
Hypomania never lasts. It’s just a stop on the way to mania. Mania is scary, and it can be fatal. When I’m manic, my mind races so fast I can’t think or sleep, and I make dangerous, potentially life-threatening impulsive decisions. I’ve broken relationships and myself in the throes of mania. Suicidal tendencies increase when mania is thrown into the mix.
I’ve identified my hypomania red flags. Your symptoms may be different, and I encourage you to figure out what behaviors are indicators for you.
Disruption in my sleep cycle is the first sign that things in my brain are going haywire. Regulated sleep is one of the most important self-care techniques for bipolar disorder. Sleep irregularity throws me off the deep end. And it’s a vicious cycle. If I get less sleep for a few days, that can trigger hypomania. In turn, hypomania makes me sleep less. I wake up before the alarm clock with ideas buzzing around in my head like a swarm of bees. I know I’m hypomanic when I feel more energized although I’ve gotten less sleep.
When I’m hypomanic, I talk to everyone from the busy bank teller to the homeless guy who just wants $1. I chat incessantly with everyone I encounter whether they want to talk to me or not. I think the entire world wants to hear my every little thought because I’m just that darned interesting. That overconfidence is a dead giveaway that I’m hypomanic.
When I’m struggling with hypomania, another telltale sign is my speech. I do most of the talking in social situations, and I don’t listen. It’s almost impossible to wait for anyone to finish a sentence. I constantly interrupt because I think people take too long to get to the point.
Spending money I don’t have
I love shopping, but when I’m experiencing hypomania, I love it too much. I know something is wrong in my brain if I lose my ability to reign in my spending. When I suddenly believe I need 6 expensive black cocktail dresses or I simply must have 12 kinds of coconut facial moisturizers, it’s obvious I must be hypomanic.
Not eating enough
When I’m hypomanic, I lose my appetite. My nutritional needs suffer. It often leads to weight loss which—for me—is particularly dangerous, because I also struggle with an eating disorder. My hypomania feeds (pun intended) my anorexia and my eating disorder makes my hypomania worse. That has long-term damaging physical and psychological effects. It can even be fatal. If I find myself losing weight and feeling better despite skipping meals or going days without eating, I know I’m hypomanic.
Hypersensitivity to external stimuli
When I’m hypomanic colors look brighter, smells are more pungent, and even faint noises can be deafening. From the wafting scent of perfume to the sound of a siren in the distance, when I’m hypomanic I’m more acutely cognizant of what’s around me. This constant sensory stimulation can be overwhelming.
The sensory overload I mentioned previously grates my nerves when I’m hypomanic. Even the faintest sound like a sneeze makes my skin crawl. Imagine being forced to wear an itchy wool sweater and being unable to take it off. That’s what it physically feels like to be hypomanic. I often get cranky and my temper flares easily. I’ve snapped at people I care about when I’m in this state, and that puts a strain on my relationships.
I once wasted 6 hours on the phone with a hospital financial office and my health insurance company arguing about a bill I felt was unreasonable. In the end, I lost. I had to pay the bill anyway. And I’d wasted almost an entire day because I just couldn’t let go of the idea that it was unfair to charge me so much for a routine medical procedure. To my detriment, hypomania took over my day and ruined it.
Denial and defensiveness
The worst part of hypomania is my refusal to admit I’m hypomanic. I deny deny deny. When someone in my support network—like my mom, who not only knows I have bipolar disorder but is also a psychotherapist—expresses concern, I snap at her and insist she’s wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I’m fine” when I knew deep down, I really wasn’t.
I was diagnosed in 2002. I used to ignore the
warning signs of hypomania. Now, when I notice myself experiencing any of these
symptoms, I suck it up and ask for help. I must also be willing to listen to
feedback from others when they see me flying too high.
I have a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist who
help me keep an eye on my moods and behavior. I’m open with my friends and family about my bipolar
disorder. They know which symptoms to watch for. I’ve made verbal contracts
with people I’m close to, to tell me when they see my mood changing. My end of
the agreement is to listen to them. I, like so many other people with bipolar
disorder, need external feedback. The lack of self-awareness that comes with
this illness necessitates outside observation and communication.
Because I have bipolar
disorder, I never let my guard down. If I start feeling happy, even if my
reaction is warranted, I question my emotions. Once
I recognize the warning signs, I admit to myself that I might be hypomanic, and
I ask for help from my health care professionals. Hypomania can be curtailed and recovered from
much more easily than full blown mania is. Although it can be tempting to
ignore hypomania, I must be willing to acknowledge it
if I want to stay healthy.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She's finishing a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light.
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