What Is Cyclothymia?

Cyclothymia is often described as a rare mood disorder or a mild form of bipolar in which a person alternates between low and elevated mood states.

These descriptions are frustrating for people like me who suffer from mental illness because they undermine the experience of living with this awful condition, and they do nothing to help people like you (if you are on the other side of the fence) to understand and empathise with what we really go through on a daily basis.

There is so much more to a mood disorder than just a high and a low mood. So in this post, I want to do my best to explain exactly what cyclothymic disorder is and how it relates to bipolar disorder. Please keep in mind that I am not a professional and that I am speaking mainly from my own experiences and perspective and the research I have done.

Cyclothymia Is Not A "Mild" Form Of Bipolar Disorder

I don't think it is fair to say that cyclothymia is just a mild form of bipolar because it implies that bipolar is the real illness. Many people who suffer from this disorder feel like the word "mild" invalidates their suffering and experience of mental illness.

Cyclothymic symptoms can indeed be extremely subtle, often passed off as personality quirks. For example, "he's in his hermit-mode" or "she's in work-mode" when the truth is that he is experiencing symptoms of depression and she is experiencing symptoms of hypomania.

Symptoms can also go unnoticed by both the sufferer and the people around them because they have developed effective coping mechanisms. For example, taking time off work or staying at home so that a low mood is not visible to friends and family, or unknowingly self-medicating by using alcohol to relax or caffeine, sugary foods, and even sex to provide the brain with a shot of dopamine and endorphins to "take the edge off" and make you temporarily feel good.

The truth is that cyclothymia is in its own right a serious mental illness that can dramatically affect the quality of a person's life, and it is not a mild form of anything. It is just as dangerous and destructive as bipolar disorder. A more accurate description might be that cyclothymia is a different form of bipolar disorder.

Did you know that there are in fact three main different types of bipolar disorder? There is "Bipolar Type 1", "Bipolar Type 2", and then there is "Cyclothymia". Maybe they should have called it "Bipolar Type 3". It might have made it easier for other people to accept the significance of the illness when we try to explain what we suffer from.

These three variations of bipolar disorder are not just milder or stronger forms of each other, they are three separate diagnoses. Three separate manifestations of a mood disorder. So let's take a look at what makes each one unique.

What Is Bipolar Type 1?

With "Bipolar 1" there is an emphasis on the mania. People diagnosed with Bipolar 1 have suffered from at least one full-blown episode of mania. Full-blown mania can be catastrophic and often leads to hospitalisation.

Only people suffering from Bipolar 1 suffer from full-blown manic episodes, and you only need to have ever experienced one of these episodes to be diagnosed.

Simply put, mania is a severely and noticeably elevated mood, which completely disrupts a person's life. The episode has to last for at least a week, and include consistent symptoms according to the criteria for diagnosis, such as grandiosity, hyperactivity, irritability, restlessness, increased productivity, creativity, racing thoughts, and living life to excess with much overindulgence and often inappropriate behaviour.

It describes an extended period of time where a person loses touch with themself and with reality in an often dangerous and self-destructive manner, and this can go as far as to include psychotic symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations. The rest of the time the person experiences long periods of normal mood, and sometimes, but not in every case, depression and hypomania.

What Is Bipolar Type 2?

With "Bipolar 2" there is an emphasis on depression. People who suffer from bipolar 2 never reach full-blown mania. Instead, they experience hypomanic episodes, which is mania with milder, but still consistent, symptoms that last for at least 4 days.

They also more commonly experience long episodes of clinical major depression, and then periods of normal mood in between.

Each episode is distinct and recognisable. This means that medication or treatment can be adjusted to control the episodes themselves, and then medication is readjusted and continued in order to maintain a more balanced mood. This is the case with bipolar 1 as well.

What Is Cyclothymia?

With "Cyclothymia", there is an emphasis on cycling and unpredictability. I'm talking relentless cycling up and down with very little relief in between.

In fact, mood swings can be so frequent and unpredictable that it can be almost impossible for some people to determine where the normal mood phase begins and ends. Others may experience a period of normal mood that lasts no longer than two months at a time.

Rather than call the individual mood states "episodes", they are described as "mood swings" or the sufferer is described as experiencing "symptoms of... (depression or hypomania)". This is not because the symptoms are necessarily any milder than bipolar episodes, but because they don't persist long enough to neatly fit the medical criteria for an "episode". If they did, then the diagnosis would switch over to one of the bipolar classifications.

There are never any full-blown manic symptoms with cyclothymia, so the person still has, to a certain extent, a grasp on reality. I might argue that one's perception of reality when they are experiencing mood swings is somewhat different from that of someone with a healthy mind though, and if you continue to follow my blog and read my stories you will see why.

If you can bring yourself to imagine just how disorientating it is to constantly swing from one mood to another, back and forth, then you might be able to appreciate why I say that cyclothymia is not a milder form of anything. It is a different form of a mood disorder on the bipolar spectrum, just like bipolar 1 and bipolar 2 are both different forms of the same mood disorder.

It is the way in which the disorder manifests itself in a person's life that determines how destructive it has the potential to be. Each variation of mood disorder is serious and destructive in its own way.

Why Is Cyclothymia Sometimes Described As Bipolar Light?

The symptoms of cyclothymia may be considered milder than those that define bipolar 1 and 2 because they don't have the time to develop into something more visible that is obviously out of the ordinary to onlookers, but that doesn't mean that the condition isn't causing havoc in a person's life.

This is perhaps one of the most frustrating things about cyclothymia. Most of the time symptoms are attributed to the person's "personality" rather than the fact that they are unwell. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that so many sufferers of cyclothymia go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed with something else, resulting in it being a "rare" mood disorder due to inaccurate statistical representation.

I may be biased in saying this, but because cyclothymia offers very little relief period, which makes it incredibly difficult to treat effectively because you are not able to treat the individual episodes like you would with bipolar 1 and 2, cyclothymia is perhaps the worst type to live with on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis.

Cyclothymia destroys your sense of self. Most of the time I have no idea who I am, what I think or believe or want, or what I am doing with my life because everything about myself changes for me from one moment to the next. I no longer trust myself to make big decisions about my life, become passionate about new projects, or even fall in love.

My Mood Disorder Metaphor

In order to try and illustrate the core differences between bipolar 1, bipolar 2, and cyclothymia, I have come up with these metaphors. This is only my own understanding and experience, of course, so please don't be offended if your own experiences feel different.

Bipolar 1 is like having a truly gruesome and terrifying manic monster hiding in your closet. It could stay hiding for years before you even know it's in there. Then one dark night it reveals itself, and until it retreats back into the shadows of the closet, you will find yourself completely emersed and living in its nightmare world, unable to wake up and get on with your life. If the bipolar 1 sufferer experiences episodes of depression and hypomania too then they will also relate to the following metaphor for bipolar 2.

Bipolar 2 is like having smaller manic monsters and dark demons of depression living underneath your bed. You always know they are there because they like to kick up your mattress while you sleep, plaguing and tormenting you. Occasionally, in turn, they come out from underneath the bed and trap you in their dark worlds for a while, either leading you on a merry dance all around your bedroom, knocking over everything that lies in your way (hypomania), or laying on top of you completely so that you cannot function at all (depression). Then the monsters retreat back under the bed, letting you escape their nightmare world, and you go back into the reality and daylight of your everyday life for a while.

Cyclothymia is more like having mini gremlins that inhabit not just space under your bed and inside of your closet, but every nook and cranny of your life. They don't just stay confined in the bedroom pulling you into their nightmare worlds when they have the opportunity either. No no, they cross boundaries into your everyday life and follow you wherever you go. They make it their mission every single day to sabotage you, Sometimes they sit on your shoulders all day wittering on in your ear about all sorts of nonsense so that you can't focus on anything at all. You believe everything they say because it's all you can hear. Other days they hang off your body, weighing you down and making everything feel ten times harder. Sometimes they mess with the lights and volume so that everything feels too bright and too loud and you just want to get into bed and hide under the duvet. And then there are those times when they sneak happy-pills into your food and drink, grab you by the hands and entice you into doing all of the things that you really shouldn't be doing - like partying, flirting, spending all of your money on new obsessions and working on all-immersive projects when you should be sleeping or doing something productive or responsible with your adult life. A life with gremlins in it is never your own, even when you think it is. Trust me. Gremlins stay hidden and they turn everyone against you, even yourself.

How Would You Describe Your Cyclothymia?

The interesting thing about mental illness is how different the same disorder can look in people. My experience of cyclothymia is likely to look and perhaps even feel at times very different to yours.

So why not join me in starting a conversation in the comments below this post about how cyclothymia manifests itself in your life? 

If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or any other mental health problem, feel free to get involved in the conversation and tell your own stories... I will look forward to hearing from you!

What To Read Next...


  1. I may have just discovered something new about myself. I was diagnosed w/BPD approximately 4 yrs ago. I haven't been informed what type it is. Before that I spent 22 years off and on different prescribed anti-depressants because I sought a doctor only during depressed episodes. Therefore, I was misdiagnosed for a long time. I don't trust people anymore because I've been abused by parents, siblings, and people who I thought were my friends. I tend to isolate now and have for the last 14 years, only rarely socializing when I think I'm feeling 'normal.' So everyone around me says things like "there's nothing wrong with you, you're just flaky and weird" which does 'wonders' for my already low self-esteem. I can't do parties or be around large groups of people anymore. I actually felt relief when I could use the Covid pandemic as an excuse to stay home. I'm challenged with insomnia and anxiety on top of it all. When people comment that I seem awfully quiet today, they don't realize that I've got so many conversations going on in my head that I can't focus on outside conversation easily. I spend money that I don't have, then later the same day regret it. I dream up 'life plans and goals' that I later in the same day realize are ridiculous and unattainable. I've alienated much of my family and went through 2 abusive marriages. My so-called BFF who I thought was helping me to get out of my 2nd marriage was actually having an affair with my husband and relaying my plans back to him which of course sabotaged all of my efforts. When I'm alone I'm actually much happier and I'm definitely not seeking a love-life. People who don't know me well describe me as sweet, kind, and sensitive. Those things are only part of me. I also tend to be empathic to other people's moods and tensions, even strangers, when I walk into a room and I react accordingly. I'm not clear myself on who I am. I don't know if I'm cyclothymic, but I self identified with a lot of what you said. It gives me something that makes me feel I need to learn more. I've discussed more than I intended. Thanks for listening and if you can suggest any other good reading or websites to learn more I would appreciate it very much.

    1. Hi Theresa,

      Thank you for commenting on my post (I have only just seen the comment). It's lovely to read such a long one, and to relate so entirely to everything you have described.

      You could literally be describing me, which is what I think a lot of people who suffer from similar mental illnesses feel when they read about people's experiences and realise that their own problems are real, and that there is proof that they are not the only ones.

      Some of the things that resounded with me were... the isolation, and in particular, often preferring it that way. The covid lockdowns felt like such a relief for me too. In fact, it felt like nothing had changed in my life except that everyone else was suddenly having to do what I do - work from home, isolate etc. I felt like I was part of the world again, when everyone else felt like they were separate from it. My anxiety reduced whilst everyone else's soared.

      Also - the fact that nobody I know or have known would say there was anything wrong with me. Whatever is going on in my head and behind closed doors is clearly not very visible, even when I am losing jobs, destroying relationships, and generally a mess. It baffles me that nobody really "sees" me. It really can be an inisible illness.

      I think there is a type of person who suffers from mental illness just like everyone else, but they are "high functioning", in other words - know how to hide it and fake it til we make it.

      It really is funny how the symptoms of both depression and hypomania can present themselves in entirely opposite ways. For example, when I am depressed I have often come across as a party animal because I am self-medicating with alcohol and pursuing escapist activities to make myself feel better (more so when I was younger than now). And when I am hypomanic I can seem very quiet or distracted/unengaged and to other people it may look like I am feeling low, when in fact, as you have said yourself, my mind is racing and I am silently preoccupied with all of the other things I want to be doing. This happens often on the phone when I seem quiet but actually I'm multitasking and have several (hundred) tabs open on my laptop.

      Everything about cyclothymia, and I imagine BPD as well, is a bit of a nightmare. But I think the most frustrating part is that other people don't see it in you. That often makes me feel like I am a fraud, and that I should be able to function normally because I look normal on the outside.

      I'm glad this post has been useful for you. I've written too much now as well. It's just so nice to identify though, isn't it?

      I can't think of any websites or blogs off the top of my head, but I do intend to write a post at some point with a list of my favourite resources. If you are subscribed to the blog then you'll get an automatic email when I publish it.

      I hope that you discover more about your own condition and feel more validated and content with your diagnosis in the end.

      Zara x

  2. I found this blog via a Facebook support group and I am so grateful that I clicked. I am in love with this blog and your writing. I like how you describe all of the illnesses with metaphors, especially Cyclothymia one! God it's so frustrating when I try to explain to people. Now, I can just send them this. Thank you for writing this.

    1. I'm so glad you have found it useful, and entertaining :) That is what I hope for when writing it. Thank you so much for letting me know, and leaving a comment... much appreciated xx


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I write about a variety of topics, including mental disorders (like bipolar, cyclothymia, depression and anxiety) but also everyday mental health challenges and self-care tips. Subscribe to my mailing list and never miss a post...