What is Mania?

As I’ve mentioned before, mania is different than hypomania. (See posts: insights into bipolar disorder, and “what is hypomania?”) I differentiate these based on severity, and according to how well I’m able to function. In hypomania, I can function normally and go about my day-to-day life and take care of my family / function adequately at a job. In mania, I am not able to function normally, cannot take care of my family or hold a job. This is due to not having the ability to focus on a schedule, complete any tasks relative to a deadline, and is due to being very distracted by thoughts, ideas, and obsessions, as well as other severe characteristics of mania, which I’ll describe.

As I have also mentioned previously, I have only experienced full blown mania a couple of times in my life. I’m grateful for that. Others who live with my same diagnosis have experienced many more episodes of full blown mania. I have been fortunate to receive adequate treatment for my mania, and I have been very diligent in learning about bipolar disorder and about my particular case so that I could have the knowledge needed to manage my condition and live successfully despite the presence of bipolar disorder in my life.

I have made myself a student of mental illness and a student particularly of bipolar disorder, and I have made myself an acute observer of the inner workings of my own brain. I have watched my behavior over time (since learning that I have bipolar disorder in 2013), and I have made note of patterns I saw and have used talk therapy as a way to consistently debrief about the patterns of thought and behavior I have noticed in my life, with my therapist (my therapist is a psychologist) – someone who has also made it their (professional) life study to understand these patterns of thought and behavior and to be able to make very accurate predictions based on these patterns.

Therapy is awesome! By the way. I personally think everyone should have a therapist, even if they don’t have a serious mental health condition. Even checking in with a therapist once a year or a few times a year can be a great way to get an outside perspective on the way your mind works and your behavior and to get insight on how to live a happier life. But that is another conversation. I especially recommend talk therapy to anyone who lives with a mental health condition.

So I give this precursor (talking about how I used observation and understanding of my behavior and my diagnosis to manage my disorder) as a way to let you know just why I have experienced mania so infrequently. I’ve only had two episodes of full-blown, acute mania, and that is a great thing, given my diagnosis.

Mania is not a pleasant experience when all is said and done.

There are many, many drawbacks to being fully manic. It is like being exceptionally ill in any other manner in your life.

One way to think about mania

For example, experiencing a full-blown manic episode might be compared to having a stroke. Having a stroke is not pleasant. It can be very painful and excruciating. You can lose consciousness, you can lose ability for speech, reasoning, comprehension, communication. You can lose complete ability to function. When you experience a stroke and the resulting hospitalization and illness, you are most likely unable to go into work, take care of your children, or function in your day-to-day life until you fully recover. You could be out of commission for days or weeks or longer.

No one wants to have a stroke

I think we can all agree no one wants to have a stroke. Strokes are not fun and not pleasant. The person having the stroke does not enjoy it. Neither does their spouse, or their children, or their family members. Having a stroke can make the people close to you scared for your life – scared about what could happen to you. When you have a stroke people probably cry and are sad to think about what could happen to your children if you are no longer here to take care of them. You get the point.

Mania is also very serious

Anyone who is privy to an experience with full blown mania (either their own or that of a family member / friend) agree that no one wants to experience a full-blown, debilitating manic episode either. It is something that occurs as a result of serious mental illness, and it is not fun. When all is said and done, it is not fun for the person who experiences it, it’s not fun for their spouse, or their children, or their family members. It can be very scary – having a serious manic episode can make the people close to you scared for your life – scared about what could happen to you. When you have a serious, debilitating manic episode, people probably cry and are sad to think about what could happen to your children if you are no longer here to take care of them. So you can see how serious a full-blown manic episode can be. I’m just trying to educate you and give you a frame of reference, or a mode of comparison for what kind of severity of illness we’re talking about here.

I don’t want to scare you about mental illness. That is not my purpose here. People in society are already afraid enough of mental illness as it is, based on a lack of understanding or from hearing incorrect information about it, either from assumptions people have or from past centuries’ misunderstandings and perceptions of mental illness.

What I am trying to do is just be honest and transparent about the difficulties of a full blown manic episode. It is scary, just like having a stroke or getting cancer is really scary. But when people have a stroke or they get cancer, people are not afraid of the person who has the stroke or gets the cancer. And yet, for some reason, today people seem to be afraid of the person with a severe mental illness. ?? Why ?? I don’t know. I could guess at some reasons, but it is largely due to lack of understanding and general misinformation about mental health conditions. This is something that should change, and that I hope will change significantly in the future. Experiencing a severe mental illness is scary. But no one should be afraid of the person with the illness. It’s not their fault – they are experiencing something excruciating. If anything they need compassion and help and support. I just got on a tangent — I’ll move on from here. 🙂

What is it like to have a manic episode?

Now that you have that background and maybe a little bit of a frame of reference, with me comparing the severity of mania with the severity of having a stroke, I will explain what it is like to have a manic episode. I gave you that background just so you don’t come complaining to me after reading about manic episodes about how you wish you hadn’t read it. 🙂 If you don’t want to hear about a really horrible episode of illness, then don’t read this. That is what a manic episode is like. It’s not pleasant. It’s not a walk in the park. Hypomania is more like an entertaining walk in a very interesting park. Mania is not like that. So if you’re here for the laughs and the funny stuff about bipolar, just go back and read about hypomania again, and skip this post about the mania.

But if you’re still interested to hear what full-blown mania is like, and are willing to suspend judgment by mentally comparing mental illness (as it logically can be compared) to other severe and debilitating illnesses, feel free to continue reading. I’ll explain what it is like. All the descriptions are based on my personal experience, so they may differ from others with my same diagnosis. No one experience is exactly alike, but the symptoms of bipolar disorder are usually similar across the board with those dealing with the illness. (I am diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, so these experiences are common to those with my particular diagnosis. Bipolar II Disorder, and some of the other types are a little different, but can also be similar.)

Characteristics of mania

I’ve already discussed that a primary characteristic of mania is an inability to function in regular life. This is due to a variety of other characteristics of symptoms that can be present in a manic episode.

During mania, as with hypomania, lots of thoughts come flooding into the mind all at once. But with mania, this is much more exaggerated. Thoughts move faster and faster, and with more force. This feels like racing thoughts, and every thought feels urgent, important — pressing, even. Thoughts during mania come with full force and sometimes feel like shouting, or like commands. I’m not saying that you actually hear your thoughts like shouting, but just that they feel like shouting – like that level of force. Actually hearing something would be auditory hallucinations, which can be present in bipolar mania, along with visual and tactile and other hallucinations, but these don’t have to be present. I’ve never experienced any type of actual hallucinations myself, but they are certainly possible in bipolar mania, from what I understand.

Thoughts during full-blown mania can be intrusive – they can feel like they come out of nowhere. Thinking during mania can be and usually is obsessive. There are lots of ideas, and unlike with hypomania, the ideas are not always exciting and enjoyable and creative. In full-blown mania, the ideas are usually more intense and often fanatical, outlandish, or “out there.” In full blown mania, paranoia is very common. The ideas that come in mania can be very paranoid, and can also reach into “end-of-days-scenarios” type of ideas – ideas that the world is ending, or that some huge catastrophe (personal or societal) is about to take place.

In full-blown mania delusions are also very common. A delusion means that you believe something that isn’t true, or something that isn’t based in reality. Delusions can come in all shapes and sizes in mania, and they can be as random as the thoughts that come into the mind during mania. Even though the person experiencing the manic episode feels very intensely that a single thought or delusion is true and important and critical and urgent, that single delusion could have originated in as random and mundane a place as, say, an image on a cereal box that person saw, or a billboard they glanced at on the freeway. In other words, in mania, the individual’s mind takes things in that person’s experience and in their surroundings and makes all the things they observe louder, more intense, more urgent, more outlandish. In mania, everything is taken to the extreme. Everything in one’s experience is exaggerated.

In mania, a person’s delusions, or belief in things that aren’t true, can (and often do) include believing they can do things that they can’t. I mentioned earlier that a characteristic of hypomania is confidence. In hypomania it is common to feel good about yourself – to think you’re a pretty awesome person. So in mania, that is taken up several notches to the extreme: confidence develops into extreme over-confidence. In mania, the person might believe they are powerful, or that they can see things that aren’t there, or can read minds, or perceive things about the world and about people that they can’t really perceive. In mania, the person might believe they are someone they are not, or that other people aren’t who they are. They might believe that certain people are antagonistic or evil, or that there are groups or people out to get them, or seeking to bring about some great catastrophe (that goes back to the paranoia, and the ends-of-days-scenarios tendencies that are common in mania).

Another characteristic of mania that is very common is risk taking. Because over-confidence is a key characteristic of mania, a person experiencing a full-blown manic episode often feels very confident in taking HUGE risks. They might think they have abilities or capabilities in business or in social situations that they don’t actually have, and so they are willing to take personal or business or financial risks that they normally wouldn’t take (or that no person would take). People in the middle of manic episodes are often very confident and when they are with people who don’t know them very well, they can come off as very charismatic and convincing, due to all that un-earned confidence. So people in the middle of a manic episode can sometimes convince other people who don’t understand what is going on to take big risks along with them. Most of the time though, this doesn’t happen. Usually people can understand what is going on when someone is in the middle of a full-blown manic episode. Or at least, people can usually tell that something is “off,” even if they don’t know exactly what.

That’s the gist!

Those are the main characteristics of mania, as I have experienced it, and as I understand it.

I’m happy to answer any questions you have about it. Again, it’s not pleasant. I’m thankful I’ve only experienced full-blown mania a couple of times. Because I manage my hypomania, I prevent mania from happening in my life on a regular basis. These are experiences people don’t like to talk about, are embarrassed by, or want to hide. These are the types of experiences that the word “crazy” comes from. But, they have been a reality in my personal past experience, so even if they are or have been “crazy,” I choose to own up to them and recognize them for what they are — phenomena resulting from something “glitching” in my brain, I guess you could say. Acknowledging them and learning about them in detail through therapy and research has given me a lot of peace surrounding the illness I deal with. I prefer to be open and honest about it in hopes of educating people who misunderstand or find these things “scary,” and also to provide hope for those who have experienced them in themselves or in family members. There is hope, guys. I live a “normal” life. 🙂 As much as that word really confuses me. (What really is “normal”? / Does it really exist?) Regardless, I think what most people consider “normal” is pretty close to what I’ve been able to work out in life. So don’t lose hope, if you’re dealing with a severe mental health challenge.

My own experiences with mania

My own two experiences with full-blown mania can be pretty accurately described using a lot of the descriptions above. Both of my experiences were pretty “by-the-book” when it comes to mania. I have also experienced some other episodes that I would say were milder manic episodes (a mix of hypomania and mania), but weren’t so exaggerated as to be considered full-blown mania. So I’ve experienced a whole range of mood and behavior when it comes to mania. But the really serious, debilitating, frightening symptoms I have experienced just twice.

If you know me at all, you might have seen me during a manic episode, or some variation thereof. My first experience having a full-blown manic episode was when I was 16 years old, while I was attending a creative arts boarding school in Michigan called Interlochen Arts Academy. My manic episode lasted for about 2 months, until Thanksgiving break when I flew home and had the worst depressive crash of ever (remember, I said that the depressive crash is a lot of times equal and opposite to the hypomanic/manic high? see post on hypomania). So anyone who knew me at 16 might have seen me during / after / leading up to that episode.

I experienced other hypomanic and depressive episodes in the years following that, in varying degrees of severity, but most of them not very severe.

My second full-blown manic episode happened almost 2 years ago (actually, now that I am mapping out the timeline, it happened exactly 10 years after the first, when I was 26 – that’s actually kind of funny that I never noticed that until just now). Almost 2 years ago, in 2016, I experienced a manic episode that began as a lack of sleep and some exciting, intense projects that went on for a week and ended in 2 days of no sleep and a hospitalization due to intense mania, delusion, and psychosis. I then was in the hospital for 7 days, where I received treatment for the mania (medication, therapy, group therapy, and time and space for personal mental recovery). During that week I actually missed my little sister’s wedding and many family members and friends stepped in and helped take care of my daughter, who was just barely 2 years old at the time, while my husband continued work and also gave me the support I needed as I was recovering / coming back into reality in the hospital. So it’s possible that a lot of people reading this knew me during this most recent episode, or may have helped me or my family during that time of crisis. (Thanks.)

That’s a wrap. 

So there you go! In this series of posts I’ve given you my best description of what hypomania and mania are like, as I’ve experienced them and as I understand them.

Talking about mental illness

If you are interested to learn more, I am happy to answer questions in comments on this post, or you can send me an email or a message and I’d be happy to answer questions to satisfy your further curiosity or help clear up any misunderstandings you may have had or have heard about bipolar disorder or any other type of mental illness. Mental illness is pretty commonly misunderstood (or just not understood at all), probably because it is not much talked about. But it is being talked about more and more with each passing year, and with a lot more clarity and honesty and understanding than in the past, which I think is awesome.

The more we can talk about and understand mental illness and know exactly what it is, what it isn’t, how often (or not often) it occurs, what to look for, and especially how to deal with it when it does come into your experience or that of a friend or loved one, the better. These illnesses, as I’ve talked about, are manageable and treatable. Treatment is not perfect, but more and more is being learned as time goes on, and as I’ve said many times in other places and conversations, it is possible to live a happy, productive, “normal” life even when living with a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder.

What I have learned is that to ignore these illnesses does not make them go away. When I have ignored my illness or neglected to be careful about it in the past (mostly as a result of not knowing what I was dealing with), the consequence has been an increase of negative symptoms and a lot of difficulty. When I have acknowledged the illness in my life and treated it with care, management, and appropriate (but not over-obsessive) attention, I have been able to live (almost) as though it doesn’t actually exist in my life most of the time. It’s always there. But because I never underestimate it and never let it go unmanaged, life is pretty good. 🙂

Thanks for reading!


You are reading part 3 of this 3-part series:

  1. Insights into bipolar disorder 
  2. What is hypomania?
  3. What is mania?


Also check out: My thoughts on medication

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