More often than people wish to think, folks go to mental health specialists and receive a misdiagnosis. This isn’t entirely the professional’s fault as they are bound to the diagnosis they choose by the symptoms and traits described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which is currently in its fifth edition.

This article will focus on how two mental health disorders, bipolar disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), and how the latter is often misdiagnosed as the former.

Bipolar Disorder

Everyone experiences high and low times in our lives, but in bipolar disorder, these peaks and valleys are much more severe and can be debilitating. Bipolar disorder brings major changes in mood, thinking, energy, and behavior patterns from the highs of mania to the extreme lows of depression. These cycles may last for days or months and the mood changes are so intense that they interfere with the person’s life, damage relationships, and disrupt their ability to function.

The causes of bipolar disorder are not well-understood, but it is believed to be inherited genetically. The symptoms of bipolar disorder are sometimes subtle and confusing so many people with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed causing unnecessary suffering. Bipolar disorder will worsen over time without proper treatment.

One phase some people experiencing bipolar disorder is mania. Mania has common feelings of heightened energy, creativity, and euphoria. One may talk fast, experience insomnia, and be hyperactive. Someone experiencing mania may also feel all-powerful and destined for greatness. While it feels good to be manic at first, mania spirals out of control as the person behaves recklessly. The person may become angry, irritable, aggressive, and lash out at those they love destroying their relationships. Some people experiencing mania may also become delusional and hear voices.

Some other common signs of mania include:

  • Unrealistic, grandiose beliefs about themselves
  • Racing thoughts
  • Unable to concentrate
  • Impaired judgment

It is called bipolar disorder because it has a flip side to mania, depression. This depression is distinctly different from that experienced in major depressive disorder especially when it comes to treatments. Antidepressants can make bipolar disorder worse and trigger bipolar depression, rapid cycling, or interference with other mood-stabilizing drugs.

Bipolar disorder is likely to involve irritability, guilt, mood swings, and restlessness and with bipolar depression, one might move and speak slowly. Also, people living with bipolar disorder might lose contact with reality and have major problems at work and in their social functioning.

Some other common symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling hopeless or sad
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Fatigue
  • Physical and mental sluggishness
  • Appetite changes
  • Weight loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Memory problems
  • Feeling worthless
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Clearly, bipolar disorder is a diagnosis that is on its own in the world of psychiatry.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)

By now most people have heard the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We hear it in conjunction with military personnel and first responders who have faced traumatic events on the job. However, many have never heard of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

CPTSD is a developmental trauma disorder quite different than PTSD in that it forms in children who experience chronic sexual, psychological, physical abuse, or neglect. As we shall see, CPTSD also has many symptoms in common with bipolar disorder but differs in some key areas.

The following definition given by Beauty for Ashes says it best:

“Complex PTSD comes in response to chronic traumatization over the course of months or, more often, years. This can include emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuses, domestic violence, living in a war zone, being held captive, human trafficking, and other organized rings of abuse, and more. While there are exceptional circumstances where adults develop C-PTSD, it is most often seen in those whose trauma occurred in childhood. For those who are older, being at the complete control of another person (often unable to meet their most basic needs without them), coupled with no foreseeable end in sight, can break down the psyche, the survivor’s sense of self, and affect them on this deeper level. For those who go through this as children, because the brain is still developing and they’re just beginning to learn who they are as an individual, understand the world around them, and build their first relationships – severe trauma interrupts the entire course of their psychologic and neurologic development.”

It is obvious that the causes of CPTSD are far different from those of bipolar disorder which is believed to be inherited.

The symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder include:

  • Losing or reliving memories of traumatic events
  • Difficult regulating mood
  • Rage
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Feeling detached from oneself
  • Feeling ashamed
  • Feeling guilty
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Feeling different from others
  • Becoming obsessed with revenge for the perpetrator
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Seeking or becoming a rescuer
  • Being hyperalert
  • Feeling a loss of spiritual attachment
  • Depending on religion for self-worth

Comparing the symptoms of the two disorders, bipolar disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, one can see some symptoms do overlap. However, there are many major differences.

Why the Problem with Misdiagnosis?

With such glaring differences in the two diagnoses, one might ask why then the problem with CPTSD being misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder? The answers are unsettling, but the truth needs to be told.

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals in the United States are paid using diagnosis codes from the DSM-5 that lists each mental health disorder and the criteria to meet them. Currently, complex post-traumatic stress disorder is not in the DSM-5 so mental health professionals are left in a quandary, they cannot diagnose their patients with CPTSD and get paid for treating them. This leaves doctors and therapists no choice but to choose bipolar disorder or some other mental health challenge as their client’s diagnosis.

Another challenge to receiving the diagnosis of CPTSD over bipolar disorder is that many mental health professionals either do not have any knowledge of CPTSD or refuse to believe in its existence even in the growing evidence that it does. Indeed, research conducted by the National Libraries of Medicine, National Institutes of Health showed that the World Health Organization (WHO) is adding complex post-traumatic stress disorder to its upcoming eleventh edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD).  Even the National Center for PTSD, a government-run website, has a page dedicated to CPTSD.

What You Should Do

What do you do if you believe you have been misdiagnosed by a mental health professional? The first thing to do is not to panic. Although we look up to doctors, they are the only people with diplomas. They are fallible and sometimes make mistakes such as giving the wrong diagnosis. If you feel your doctor has made a mistake, ask for a second opinion outside of that doctor’s clinic. Most insurance companies allow this maneuver and even if yours does not it is worth the peace of mind.

Second, make sure to be totally upfront and honest with your clinician. A mental health professional’s diagnosis is only as good as the information you give them. If you hold back facts from your childhood or other information you are hurting yourself and become more likely to be misdiagnosed.

Last, if you do not feel your mental health professional is a good fit and that your diagnosis is wrong, seek out someone else for help. Take advantage of websites that help you find specialists who deal with complex post-traumatic stress disorder to find a good match.

Misdiagnosing CPTSD as bipolar disorder is dangerous and will not help the person experiencing symptoms to heal. Definitely, reach out to a mental health professional when you need help but keep in mind that misdiagnosis can and does occur.

“Believe in yourself. You are braver than you think, more talented than you know, and capable of more than you imagine.” ~ Roy T. Bennett

If you are a survivor or someone who loves a survivor and cannot find a therapist who treats complex post-traumatic stress disorder, please, contact CPTSD Foundation. We have a staff of volunteers who have been compiling a list of providers who treat CPTSD. They would be happy to give you more ideas about where to look and find a therapist to help you. Go to the contact us page and send us a note stating you need help, and our staff will respond quickly to your request.

Are you a therapist who treats CPTSD? Please, consider dropping us a line to add you to our growing list of providers. You would get aid in finding clients, and you would be helping someone find the peace they deserve. Go to the contact us page and send us a note and our staff will respond quickly.

Shortly, CPTSD Foundation will have compiled a long list of providers who treat complex post-traumatic stress disorder. When it becomes available, we will be putting it on our website

Make sure to visit us and sign up for our weekly newsletter to help keep you informed on treatment options and much more for complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you or a loved one live in the despair and isolation that comes with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, please, come to us for help. CPTSD Foundation offers a wide range of services, including:

Free Winter Holiday Support 2020

60 Days of CPTSD Strategies 

One email a day to help you through the holidays!

  • Does the thought of the upcoming holiday season cause you anxiety?
  • Could you use some help with healthy boundaries, self-care, and making your healing a priority, amidst the chaos?
  • Maybe you could just use some extra encouragement during the upcoming holiday season?
  • Would a single email per day, containing a video, audio, inspiring quote, or encouraging thought, be something you would find helpful?

If you answered “YES” to any of these questions, then why not join us for Winter Holiday Support?

The Healing Book Club


Today, CPTSD Foundation would like to invite you to our healing book club, reading a new book that began in September. The title of the latest featured book is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

Led by Sabra Cain, the healing book club is only $7 per month, the fee going towards scholarships for those who cannot afford access to materials offered by CPTSD Foundation.

Should you decide to join the Healing Book Club, please purchase your books through our Amazon link to help us help you.

All our services are reasonably priced, and some are even free. So, to gain more insight into how complex post-traumatic stress disorder is altering your life and how you can overcome it, sign-up, we will be glad to help you.  If you cannot afford to pay, go to to apply for aid. We only wish to serve you.