Do I have Bipolar Disorder? Or, is it really PTSD!

Post Traumatic Disorder or PTSD is an anxiety based disorder resulting from experiencing a significant or traumatic event. Not everyone’s level of functioning is affected by PTSD.  Some are resilient and bounce right back, while the majority affected experience some symptoms.  There are also those who have been significantly affected. Their level of functioning is so impaired they have difficulty with social and vocational functioning.

Focusing on the symptoms or how one is being affected is  actually more important than the label. Quite a few of the symptoms are very similar to Bipolar and Quite often PTSD is misdiagnosed. PTSD doesn’t have the severe mood swings seen with Bipolar.

With Bipolar disorder, in the manic phase there are significant mood swings, risky behavior, getting by on little sleep, and grandiose beliefs. At the other extreme the person with Bipolar becomes extremely depressed and can have suicidal ideations. Some Bipolar people cycle on a rapid basis, while some are mostly depressed and occasionally have a manic episode. Then there are those who are manic most of the time and only occasionally depressed.

When a significant or traumatic event occurs, the brain has a chemical reaction that takes a picture of the event and stores the emotions experienced from it. Even though President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, if today I see a black limo convertible in Texas, the memory comes right up including my emotions at the time. That was a significant event that I saw on television and didn’t personally affect me but it still made a traumatic impression on me. Another ingredient of PTSD is that the trauma or significant event was against my value system. Our president was assassinated. My supposedly safe world was shattered.

Other symptoms of PTSD include hypervigilance or being constantly aware of one’s surroundings because something bad may happen if one’s guard is lowered; being easily startled, having problems trusting people, or having intrusive thoughts or images of the event. Another major symptom is an over reaction to similar events. An example of this is a person involved in a car accident having a panic attack when they drive through an intersection and see a car that looks identical to the one in the accident.

There is a filter in the brain where significant/traumatic events are stored and connected to the flight fight response. This is part of our primitive survival instincts. The filter in the brain gets its information from what the person sees, smells, hears, tastes and touches. When the brain receives information similar to the traumatic event an overreaction can occur.

Single event traumas can affect a person’s ability to function, however complex PTSD can affect someone again and again. This is repeated trauma. It happens to victims of domestic violence and by children who grew up in physical, emotional or verbal violence. Abused kids have all the symptoms of PTSD, plus they were never taught how to cope and deal with feelings or how to nurture and love others.