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Mood Swings are Normal

I see more and more clients who have gone to their doctor complaining of "mood swings", being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and placed on mood stabilizers.  Yet when I talk to them they do not meet the diagnostic criteria for Bipolar Disorder.  When I talk to them more I get an interesting picture.

When I ask them to describe their mood swings they describe having emotions.  They simply feel their emotions.  How did we get to a place where this is diagnosed as being abnormal and medicated with a very serious, and often dangerous class of drugs? 

Human beings have mood swings.  This is normal.  This is what makes us human.  If I get up in the morning and I'm having a good hair day, I awake refreshed and excited about going to work, I'm wearing something I feel particularly good in and the weather is beautiful, I may be in a really good mood.  I may feel happy, content, and energetic.  I get in my car to drive to work and accidentally spill coffee all over myself.  I am now in a quite different mood.  I may experience, anger, frustration, irritation or sadness.  I manage to clean up the mess and recoup what's left of my good mood.  I go on to work where I hear that the funding for our program may be cut.  I am now in yet another mood. I may be feeling anxiety, fear, trepidation, worry, frustration or irritation.  This is all normal.  This is how human beings function.  We have emotional reactions to things going on around us or happening to us.  This does not need to be medicated. 

So what happens if we are facing some particularly difficult life challenges and feeling some particularly uncomfortable emotions as a result?  Emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, frustration or sadness?  If we are so sad or anxious that we cease to function, medication may be temporarily appropriate to get us throuogh this difficult time and bring us back up to a level where we can at least function.  But only in extreme circumstances.  If we experience something painful in our lives we need to feel it.  People often ask why we need to experience such unpleasant feelings when we have medications that will numb them.  There are several reasons for this. 

1.  Medications, like mood stabilizers, which tranquilize or damp down negative emotions also numb positive emotions.  Though we may feel the pain of a recent death less, we may also be less able to enjoy happiness or pleasure either.  A hug from our child, a walk on a beautiful day, our favorite music or food, a get together with friends, playing our favorite sport.  The intensity and joy we feel during these events may be numbed as well.

2.  Medications also prevent us from learning more natural ways of handling intense emotions.  We come to rely on the medications alone to do all the work.  It's important to develop the skills necessary to manage uncomfortable emotions.  If you don't learn to deal with the death of a close family member or friend when you are 30, how are you going to deal with the death of your friends and family at 70, when it is going to start happening more often?  Working through grief teaches us how to cope with it.  It allows us to develop ways of comforting ourselves and skills for living with suffering that we will need later.  It gives us a chance to look at our own lives and find what is important in them.  Things we will need to hang onto later.  If we don't develop these skills gradually over time, we suddenly arrive at old age.  We now have to deal with a myriad of problems; our own declining health, the deaths of friends, family or spouses, the inability to work, our increasing dependence on others.  How are we going to deal with all of these issues if we haven't developed strategies for coping along the way?  We may find ourselves standing like a deer caught in the headlights with absolutely no way of handling it.  Or we may be so doped up on medications that we no longer experience our own lives.  And if you are not experiencing your life, what is the point of living it? 

Suffering is part of life, but only part of it.  Learning to have your emotions and be comfortable with them makes life a much richer tapestry of experiences.  It's the difference between eating fat-free, sugar-free ice cream and Haagen Dazs.  It's the difference between listening to your favorite music on a transistor radio and listening to it on your home stereo system or in a concert hall. 

Does this mean that I think that no one has Bipolar Disorder?  Absolutely not.  Bipolar Disorder exists and requires medication.  Though counseling may help people with Bipolar Disorder develop skills for coping with the disorder, it can only be controlled with medication.  For people with a true Bipolar diagnosis, medication may be the only thing that keeps it from totally destroying their lives and I would never advocate that they go without it. 

My concern is for people who are actually experiencing the normal emotions of life, labeling them "mood swings" and trying to medicate their discomfort away.  My concern is for doctors who participate in this and validate it.  My concern is for teaching people that emotions can be "negative" and undesirable.  That they are "bad" in some way and should be eliminated, by chemical intervention or any other means.  This is not a message we want to send.  Emotions are what make us human.  And expressing them is what keeps us sane. 


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I've really enjoyed reading your blog. In fact, this article inspired me to write on my favorite topic. Keep up the great work!


Oops! Forgot the link! http://www.dare-to-dream.us/archives/2009/03/mood_swings_are_normal.php



What a great article. Thanks for providing the link! I really appreciate hearing from someone else who is seeing the same problem. I met yet another person today who is struggling not with "Bipolar Disorder" but trauma. The trauma is being suppressed and she and the doctor are trying to "medicate it away". I'm sure you will agree that will never work. Trauma has to be integrated and embraced. It really concerns me how casually these very serious medications are handed out in an attempt to tranquilize honest emotions. But I'm preaching to the choir aren't I?

Congratulations on your blog. Nicely done!


This is a very good article. But, I believe people feel pressured to always be in a good mood. Resulting in wanting pills to get rid of them. Work is a perfect example. If we are going through a tough situation...or simply an anxiety problem...we don't feel like playing and joking and being friendly all the time. Then I think that this results in you being looked at as someone antisocial, weird or Bipolar. Do we just need to learn how to hide our pain 40 hours a day 5 days a week? Don't you agree that's a lot of time pretending to be a happy, jolly person?


I couldn't agree more Me. I think Americans in particular believe they should be happy all the time and if they aren't they believe they are "depressed" and need medication to "fix" it. And you are right, work is a perfect example. Not only is that a lot of time spent pretending to be happy, it is tiring! I think it's worse in the South, where I live. If you don't smile at everyone all day they think you are mad at them. Really. I've gotten in the car at the end of the day and caught my face actually falling, in fatigue, at having had to smile all day.

I believe that some people have "mood swings" that are off the scale and disruptive, but they look more to me like "mood episodes" than mood swings. I kind of like to see people have mood swings. It gives me accurate information about how they really are. My perception of their mood "jives" with how they tell me they are feeling and this is how it should be. If my perception is that they are having a bad day and seem a little cranky, but they smile and tell me everything is lovely it's confusing.



You gave an example of actual things in life happening to cause an emotional change throughout the day. What about those who experience changes with no linking cause, or something so trivial - say, thinking about feeling sad/anxious - that is actually causes that person to feel anxious or sad or ...


Hi Danny,

Good question. If you are thinking of feeling sad or anxious then feeling sad or anxious I would have to wonder what provoked the thought originally?

If you are experiencing emotional changes through no linking cause I would next wonder what kinds of feelings? Are they ever pleasant feelings that suddenly appear unprovoked, or usually unpleasant (fear, anger, sadness)? People who have experienced trauma will often respond emotionally to triggers they are totally unaware of if they have repressed the memory of the original trauma. These emotional responses are often very quick and very intense. If you have a history of trauma and suspect you are reacting to triggers it is immportant to tune into your body's experiences and see what is happening right before the sudden mood change. You can even keep a journal to help you detect patterns. Try to determine what was happening with all five senses right before the mood shift: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches.

By contrast, a psychologist I was reading the other day described the mood swings of Bipolar Disorder as "epidodes" and that seems more accurate. With Bipolar Disorder a person will usually slide slowly into a manic episode and stay there for several weeks before sliding out again. It is not something that happens in seconds. If you look at the DSM IV a manic episode is defined as lasting at least one week.

I hope that helps. If not, please let me know.


Human beings have mood swings. This is normal. This is what makes us human.

Heh. You haven't met my cat, then.

Mood swings don't make us human; they make us animals. No creature that must interact with the world around them in an active way can function without emotions. Emotions are functional; they allow us to process the world and its stimuli. It's not a logical job - it's an emotional one. Logic is when you take the observations you have made you have (not the knowledge an observer may have, but the knowledge you have) about the situation and you make the best decision you can. All animals do this, or living would be an impossibility.

I am constantly amused by the fact that humans don't understand what the things they believe make them human are by far normal and average for all animals.

You're not an emotional anomaly.

I'm looking forward to reading through this blog. It's interesting and it does jive with the majority of my experiences. For example: I have, in my life, both self-injured and taken medication; I have actually been medicated for more of my life than I haven't. I self-injured because of what I call "rage attacks", which are indescribable except when I compare them to panic attacks - so overwhelming, consuming, and destructive.

Fact is, I chose several years ago to discontinue my medication (an antipsychotic, Abilify) when I moved away from my family.

I never experienced a rage attack again... until I had to move back in with my family temporarily.

An abusive environment will invariably create a mental disorder. If it doesn't, there's something irrevocably wrong there (or you've just spotted the abuser).


12 yrs ago I had a lot of stressors happen simultaneously in my life that essentially lead to me shutting down. I was in a position where I had no one to talk to, and I felt my only option was to seek professional attention. Not knowing any better, I accepted their diagnosis of depression and, subsequently, bipolar disorder.

After 10 years of ineffective treatment and therapy, I found a way of dealing with life situations that works very well for me. The result of this is that my whole viewpoint shifted INSTANTLY. I realized that the meds were keeping me from feeling anything at all, and I am in the process of being gradually being weaned off of them.

I have received resistance from my Dr. and my better half because they are convinced it was the meds that caused my improved condition. If I chose to listen to them and not trust my instincts, I would still be in a zombie state from the meds.

I do admit that the meds had their place, in numbing out the pain when I was at my lowest, but they took away any quality of life that I ever had.

Through that experience, I have come to the same conclusion as the one you have stated so well.

I did not at any point have a mental illness. What I experienced was a complete inability to effectively cope with some of the rough spots in life. Now that I know better, I am dong better.

Do I have bad days? Not anymore. I do have MOMENTS where I react instead of responding.... but they pass quickly and are uncommon. I accept them as part of my learning process, and move on.

I hope this helps support your article.


Hi Robert,

It does! And thank you. I'm so pleased to hear that you listened to your instincts and fought for your mental health. Meds do have a place, but they must be kept in it, lol.

Thank you so much for sharing.

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