What Is The Difference Between Bipolar Disorder and ADHD?

Woman standing by her back door

Justin Paget/DigitalVision/Getty

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder are two diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). They are two distinct conditions with different causes, symptoms, and treatment options. However, there are some similarities in presentation and symptoms.

It is possible for someone to meet the diagnostic criteria for both ADHD and bipolar disorder, but sometimes it can be difficult to determine which diagnosis best fits someone’s presenting symptoms.

Symptom overlap can cause people to be misdiagnosed, and understanding the distinction between these two conditions is important in ensuring that clients receive appropriate care.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental diagnosis that can present with a variety of symptoms, including issues with attention and focus, memory problems, emotional dysregulation, impulsive behavior, and hyperactivity. A person with ADHD can be diagnosed as inattentive-type, hyperactive-impulsive-type, or combined-type.

To meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, an individual must exhibit six or more inattentive symptoms, six or more hyperactive-impulsive symptoms, or both.

The inattentive symptoms of ADHD are:

  • Making careless mistakes
  • Having difficulty maintaining focus in tasks
  • Having difficulty listening when spoken to
  • Failing to follow through on instructions
  • Having difficulty staying organized
  • Avoiding tasks that require a lot of mental effort and focus
  • Losing things
  • Becoming distracted easily
  • Being forgetful

The hyperactive-impulsive symptoms of ADHD are:

  • Fidgeting, tapping, or squirming
  • Leaving one’s seat at inappropriate times
  • Running or climbing at inappropriate times
  • Making noise while engaging in activities
  • Being “On the go,” as if “driven by a motor”
  • Talking excessively
  • Blurting or speaking out at inappropriate times
  • Being unable to wait one’s turn
  • Interrupting in conversations

ADHD symptoms typically manifest prior to age 12, but some might not display symptoms until they are older if they compensate or mask their symptoms. Since ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, symptoms tend to occur most or all of the time rather than in episodes.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar is a type of mood disorder marked by both depressive symptoms and manic or hypomanic episodes. Individuals with a bipolar-type disorder typically experience depression and can be diagnosed with  either bipolar I or bipolar II disorder based on how their manic symptoms present.

Individuals with bipolar I disorder have a history of at least one full manic episode, which includes elevated or irritable mood and increased energy as well as at least three of the following symptoms:

  • Feelings of grandiosity or inflated self-esteem
  • Significantly reduced need for sleep; for example, feeling rested after only two hours of sleep per night or staying up all night
  • More talkative than normal
  • “Flight of ideas,” or racing thoughts that are disconnected
  • Distractibility
  • Agitated movements
  • High-risk activities, such as physically dangerous choices, impulsive spending, drug use, or unsafe sexual behavior

Symptoms must be present most of the day or all day for a minimum of one week to meet criteria for a manic episode. Manic episodes might include psychotic symptoms. A person must have had at least one full manic episode to be diagnosed with bipolar I disorder.

Individuals with bipolar II disorder must have a history of at least one major depressive episode and a hypomanic episode. To meet criteria for a hypomanic episode, an individual must experience the period of elevated mood and at least three manic symptoms lasting at least four consecutive days. Hypomanic episodes typically do not include psychotic symptoms.

Bipolar disorder typically manifests in adolescence or early adulthood, though on rare occasions children can develop bipolar disorder.

ADHD and Bipolar Disorder: Symptom Overlap and Differences

Some symptoms appear under the diagnostic criteria for both ADHD and bipolar disorder. Providers must distinguish which diagnosis best accounts the client’s symptoms, or if both diagnoses are present. The following symptoms can be present in individuals with ADHD and those with bipolar disorder.

Distractibility

Distractibility can have many causes, including fatigue, substance intoxication, or stress. Both people with ADHD and those with bipolar disorder can exhibit distractibility as well.

A person with ADHD may be easily distracted by extraneous things, like other activities or visually interesting objects. They may also struggle with focus due to disorganization or forgetfulness. When someone is experiencing a manic or hypomanic episode, they may be distracted by their own thoughts or the cycle of their moods.

Racing Thoughts

Both people with ADHD and people with bipolar disorder report “racing thoughts.” However, the experience of racing thoughts is different for ADHD and bipolar disorder.

People with ADHD experience thoughts that jump from topic to topic following a thread. The thread might jump between topics based on loose associations or memories; for example, a food might remind a person of a film where someone ate that food, which could bring up a memory from when they saw that film. To an outside observer, the connections might not be immediately apparent, but the connection exists.

Racing thoughts caused by manic or hypomanic symptoms follow a “flight of ideas” pattern, where the individual jumps between topics without a connection or thread connecting the ideas. The individual might perceive a connection between these topics, but those connections may be peripheral or even delusional.

Impulsive or Reckless Behavior

Both ADHD and bipolar disorder can cause impulsive, reckless, or dangerous behavior, including over-spending, unsafe sexual activity, driving recklessly, or making big, life-changing decisions.

People with ADHD who exhibit impulsive behavior tend to show a consistent pattern of behavior over time. Although they might develop skills to better manage these impulses or follow a medication regiment hat helps manage their symptoms, the behavior tends to be consistent over time.

People with bipolar disorder tend to display impulsive or reckless behavior during manic or hypomanic episodes. The behavior abates when they are not in the midst of an episode, and they might not understand why the behavior seemed like a good choice at the time.

Periods of Hyper-Focus

People with ADHD often struggle less with sustaining attention and more with choosing what their attention will focus on. This can lead to hyper-focus on preferred activities, areas of interest, or things that are interesting to them. The hyper-focus can cause the individual to forget to eat, use the bathroom, or engage in other self-care activities due to their focus.

During manic or hypomanic episodes, people with bipolar disorder may engage in “increased goal-directed activity” and restlessness. This can be due to feelings of grandiosity or delusions that they can accomplish unrealistic goals.

ADHD and Bipolar Disorder: Treatment Options

Effective treatment options are available for both ADHD and bipolar disorder, though an accurate diagnosis is essential for appropriate treatment.

Individuals with bipolar disorder may benefit from medication, including mood stabilizers such as lithium, anticonvulsants, antipsychotics and antidepressant medications. Depending on individual needs and symptoms, an individual might need a combination of medications to stabilize their moods. Ongoing therapy services can help individuals develop appropriate coping skills and learn to identify when they might be entering an episode.

Those with ADHD are often prescribed stimulant or non-stimulant ADHD medication. They may require support in building skills to manage their symptoms or accommodations in work or academic settings to help with performance and functioning. As with bipolar disorder, people with ADHD might benefit from therapy services to manage stress and cope with anxiety related to their diagnosis.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect that you might have bipolar disorder or ADHD, your primary physician can help you get a referral for testing. Getting a correct diagnosis is a key first step in determining which treatments and interventions will be most helpful to you.

Was this page helpful?
2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2013. DSM-V, doi-org.db29.linccweb.org/10.1176/ appi

  2. Hsu WY, Lane HY, Lin CH. Medications used for cognitive enhancement in patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, alzheimer’s disease, and parkinson’s diseaseFront Psychiatry. 2018;9:91.