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What is Rapid Cycling?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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Rapid cycling is defined in many manuals of psychiatry as four or more mood episodes in the same year for a patient with bipolar disorder. This is not a separate form of bipolar disorder, but rather a distinctive, symptomatic pattern that can come and go, depending on the patient. Some people with bipolar disorder never experience these mood episodes, others may regularly experience them, and some experience them intermittently. It can be challenging to treat patients while they are in a rapid cycling phase.

People with bipolar disorder can experience mania, an extremely elevated mood, and depression. In a mixed episode, both are experienced at the same time, but more commonly, patients transition between these two states and may also have periods of stability where they feel relatively neutral. This psychiatric disorder can be treated with medications like lithium, along with psychotherapy to help the patient address issues as they come up.

With rapid cycling, people have episodes of mania and depression more commonly than other patients with bipolar disorder. Some patients may cycle four or five times in a year, while others can experience much more rapid changes in their mood. In some cases, doctors use terms like “ultra-rapid cycling” and “ultra ultra-rapid cycling” to refer to patients who experience changes in a matter of days or within the same day. It is important to distinguish diagnostically between rapid cycling and mixed episodes in these cases.

For reasons not fully understood by psychiatric professionals, rapid cycling bipolar disorder tends to be more resistant to medication. If a patient was successfully using medication to manage the disorder, it may no longer be effective, and new medications may not work as well. Patients can try a variety of medications to see if there is a drug that will help them bring the rapid cycling under control, and psychotherapy can be used to explore possible triggers that might have acted as a catalyst to cause this condition in the patient.

For patients, these swings between mood episodes can be traumatic and frustrating. Family members, partners, and friends may also have difficulty surviving their loved ones' mood episodes, and adjusting as they work on managing their bipolar disorder. Patients and loved ones may find it helpful to meet in group therapy with a mental health professional who can provide advice and suggestions on helping loved ones with mood episodes. Group therapy with other bipolar patients can also be beneficial for some people.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By MuffinMan — On May 03, 2012

I'm in the midst of this 'rapid cycling' thing right now...I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about four years ago and the doctor put me on seroquel which did nothing but put me straight to sleep.

I stopped taking the seroquel and haven't received any treatment since. I've had an abusive childhood being bullied by "friends" as well as parents often.

I've noticed that every time someone shows up from my past to hang out with me or whatever, about two days later, it tosses me into this rapid cycling state of mind for like a week straight. It takes a toll on my entire life. I have two sons ages 9 and 7 and I'm worried that my 9 year old is going to have the same thing I have.

I'm far too poor to afford treatment, too. Please help!

By anon264792 — On Apr 29, 2012

I can attest that rapid cycling is harder to treat. Meds changed me barely at all so I basically have learned to recognize the symptoms and triggers and manage them accordingly.

By Monika — On Nov 04, 2011

@KaBoom - Rapid cycling does sound very difficult to deal with. I've actually heard of bipolar rapid cycling before, but I've never heard of a mixed episode.

As the article said, a mixed episode is when a person is manic and depressed at the same time. I just don't understand how this is possible! How can you have an extremely elevated mood but then be depressed at the same time? I guess I could understand if the persons mood fluctuated extremely quickly, like minute by minute or something. But it doesn't make any sense to me that a person would experience two such different moods simultaneously.

By KaBoom — On Nov 03, 2011

As I was reading the article, I was thinking that rapid cycling actually sounds like it would be a little bit better than having regular bipolar disorder. At least you would experience depression for less time consecutively, you know?

However, once I read that rapid cycling mood disorder is harder to medicate, I changed my mind. I think this is worse than regular bipolar disorder. Dealing with psychological disorders of any kind can be rough (I should know, I have anxiety), but dealing with a disorder that's difficult to medicate? I think that would be really difficult.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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