If you think you might have bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder (BPD), understanding the difference can be confusing. Maybe you’ve struggled with mood swings, thoughts of self-harm, or making impulsive decisions—all of these are common among people with both conditions. But despite their similarities, bipolar disorder and BPD also have a lot of differences. Understanding these differences can help you decide what steps to take to improve your mental health.
Mood disorder vs. personality disorder
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder—it primarily involves changes in your mood. People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of mania and depression. Mania involves feeling extremely energetic and excited. Sometimes people with mania lose touch with reality (this is called psychosis). Depression is feeling extremely sad and exhausted for several weeks at a time. In between bouts of mania and depression, people with bipolar disorder may feel relatively stable.
Unlike bipolar disorder, BPD is a personality disorder. Personality disorders involve patterns of thinking and behavior that affect all aspects of a person’s life. People with BPD often have an insecure attachment style, meaning that they have a hard time trusting other people to stick around. Their emotions—and even their identity—can depend heavily on their relationships with other people.
It’s also possible to have both BPD and bipolar disorder.
Timing and Triggers
When you’re manic, you might feel very energetic and excited for weeks or even months at a time. You might feel invincible, like nothing can bring you down. Often, your mood will stay positive even if bad things happen to you. Likewise, depressive episodes also last for a long time, and you might stay depressed even if something really good happens. Sometimes these episodes come out of nowhere, with no obvious reason why you feel one way or the other.
While mania and depression can last for weeks or months, people with BPD might experience extreme ups and downs within a single day. These changes in mood are usually triggered by something. The trigger is usually related to the person’s relationships. Maybe you feel really good, and then someone looks at you the wrong way and you are suddenly depressed. But then they say something nice, and you’re back on top of the world. You might be able to identify a reason for why you feel a certain way, but you also may start to notice a lot of overreactions to relatively small events.
Although people with BPD often cycle through their emotions more quickly than people with bipolar disorder, it is possible for someone to experience a very short manic or depressive episode. It’s even possible to experience both at the same time—this is called a mixed episode.
Bipolar disorder and BPD are both treatable. Making lifestyle changes, going to therapy, and/or taking medications are common ways of dealing with mental illness.
Many people with bipolar disorder feel better with medication. Mood stabilizers can alleviate symptoms of mania and depression. It also helps to learn how to recognize mania and depression, and to develop healthy habits that add stability to your life.
People with BPD usually get better by learning to regulate their emotions and engage in healthy relationships. These skills are the focus of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), the most common treatment for BPD. No medications treat BPD directly, but medications for anxiety and depression can sometimes be helpful for people with BPD.