Stress people
Bipolar disorder is characterised by alternating moments of mania and depression iStock

Many of us have heard the term bipolar used in the wrong circumstances – perhaps most commonly, when a friend is moody or quick-tempered. But while bipolar disorder does affect someone's mood, it is a very difference experience to the normal mood swings we all have from time to time. It is a serious mental health condition that can have a devastating impact on the person living with it.

Bipolar disorder used to be known as manic depression and it causes episodes of clinical depression and mania, the feeling of being very high and overactive. It is common – around one in every 100 adults will be diagnosed with the condition at some point.

So what is the difference between these periods caused by bipolar disorder – and the ordinary mood swings we all experience?

Sharon Sutton, 33, has bipolar disorder and is a public speaker and campaigner about the condition.

"Bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in the brain which causes high and low moods which differ from that of someone who doesn't have bipolar disorder," Sutton explains. "It can also affect concentration levels, energy levels, difficulty sleeping and remembering things to things like talking quickly, racing thoughts and even hallucinating."

"Mood swings with bipolar disorder are different to having ordinary mood swings in the sense that there are more ups and downs as the shifts in moods have a more frequent occurrence and are more extreme which can also result in depression and hypomania or mania."

The symptoms of bipolar disorder vary widely – and depend on the mood the individual is experiencing at the time. Unlike simple mood swings, episodes of bipolar disorder are much more extreme and can last for several weeks, or longer.

There are also different patterns associated with bipolar disorder. For example, someone may experience depression more frequently than feelings of mania – or the other way round. Others may experience "rapid cycling", in which a person swings from a high to a low without having a "normal" period in between. In some cases, a person may experience depression at the same time as the overactivity associated with mania.

As Sutton states, one person's experience of bipolar disorder is different to another. "My experience of having bipolar disorder is as unique to me as it is to the next person, as everybody is different and no two people present with the same symptoms, nor are the same," she says.

"I personally see it as a curse sometimes but also a blessing because I honestly think that is what drives me in life as I feel that in a way it has given me a passion and a purpose as an individual and I believe some of my success has come from it."

Richard Colwill, spokesperson for the mental health charity SANE, says: "Bipolar disorder is a serious condition that affects someone's moods, which can swing from one extreme to the other. A person may fluctuate between episodes of mania when they are full of energy and ambition, to periods of deep depression and despondency. These episodes can last for weeks or even longer and are quite unlike normal mood swings.

"During periods of mania a person may be filled with grand plans and ideas, they may overspend, go without sleep or food, and can experience symptoms of psychosis. When depressed, they may feel a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness that can lead to thoughts of suicide.

"It is extremely important to seek help if you are experiencing symptoms like these, with a combination of medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, and learned techniques to help manage your condition likely to offer the best road to recovery."