Psychomotor Activity in Bipolar Disorder

How Moods Can Impact Motor Activity

Young Woman Crying In Bed
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"Psychomotor" refers to how the brain's mental processes affect physical movement. Psychomotor activity can be increased (psychomotor agitation) or decreased (psychomotor retardation).

Psychomotor agitation or retardation can be a feature of several types of mental illness but is commonly used to diagnose bipolar disorder. Psychomotor changes can be indicative of a manic or depressive episode.

These movements, or lack thereof, are directly related to what's going on in your brain. For example, if you are depressed, you will generally have less psychomotor activity as your emotions leave you feeling sluggish and weak.

By contrast, you may exhibit accelerated psychomotor activity, such as fidgeting or making repetitive movements, during a manic episode when your energy level is high.

Understanding Psychomotor Agitation

Psychomotor agitation is a type of purposeless, agitated movement. At times, it may be unintentional. It occurs in bipolar disorder, as well as in other mood disorders such as depression or schizophrenia. 

Examples of Psychomotor Agitation

  • Pacing
  • Fidgeting
  • Foot or finger tapping
  • Talking faster than normal
  • Switching television channels repeatedly

Psychomotor agitation can occur during a manic or hypomanic episode. Other symptoms of a manic or hypomanic episode include expansive mood, a condition characterized by excessive, impulsive, and grandiose behavior, such as:

  • Irritability and sudden bursts of anger
  • Excessive spending or lavishing gifts on others
  • Increased risk-taking or difficulty distinguishing between safe and unsafe gambles
  • Socially inappropriate behavior (such as being overly friendly in a way that makes others feel awkward)
  • An escalation in goal-oriented activities (either big or incidental tasks that need to be completed immediately)

Understanding Psychomotor Retardation

Psychomotor retardation in bipolar disorder is defined by slow or impaired movement. It's more likely to occur during depressive episodes and is primarily associated with bipolar I disorder.

Examples of Psychomotor Retardation

  • Talking more slowly
  • Difficulty writing or typing
  • Having trouble getting out of bed
  • Taking a long time in between bites of food
  • Moving slowly (often hunched over with head lowered)

Psychomotor retardation can occur with the classic symptoms of depressions, including:

  • Frequent crying
  • Feeling sad or empty
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating less or more than normal
  • Trouble focusing or remembering things
  • Self-harming behaviors and having suicidal thoughts

Treatment

Evaluating psychomotor activity not only helps doctors diagnose bipolar disorder, but it also allows them to assess the severity of a manic or depressive episode.

There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but treatments such as medications and psychotherapy can help people manage the condition.

Medications used to treat bipolar depression include antipsychotics, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety drugs. Psychotherapy may consist of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), family counseling, and/or group therapy.

Finding the right combination of treatments can take time, but you don't have to go through it alone. If you've been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it's important that you build a support network of family, friends, as well as a doctor and mental health professional you trust.

If you or a loved one are struggling with bipolar disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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