What Is "Flight of Ideas" in Bipolar Disorder?

Ideas that race from topic to topic can be a scary symptom of mania

Flight of Ideas
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What Are Racing Thoughts and Flights of Ideas?

While bipolar disorder is generally considered to be a mood disorder, symptoms -- particularly during manic episodes -- can also include disorders of thought. People in a manic state may have a difficult time filtering out meaningful versus non-meaningful input, and may thus respond to their environment in surprising ways. Ordinary sensory input, such as the sound of traffic or blinking lights, may become severely distracting, focusing attention on nonessential information.

During manic episodes, it is not unusual for bipolar people to experience "racing thoughts" and "flight of ideas." These two associated symptoms involve extremely rapid thought processes that, in some cases, leap from topic to topic at incredible speed. Racing thoughts and flight of ideas are also common symptoms of schizophrenia and, in some cases, ADHD.

Racing thoughts are often a symptom of anxiety, and while they are common with mood and thought disorders, they occur in people who have no disorder but are in a stressed state. Typically, racing thoughts focus on a particular topic, often related to a stress-inducing event; for example: "My big test is tomorrow, but I don't know the information. I could know the information if I studied more but studying also makes me feel more stressed. If I'm more stressed I'll likely do poorly on the test but if I don't study I'll also do poorly and either way I'm in trouble because this test is half my grade and if I fail I'll fail the class which means summer school and ..."

While racing thoughts may or may not be expressed, flight of ideas involves continuous, rapid speech that changes focus from moment to moment based on association, distractions, or plays on words. Some of the time, it is possible to follow the person's leaps of logic (especially if you know the person well).

Other times, the racing thoughts are so disorganized and chaotic that even a close friend or relative will find them confusing. The website Bipolar Disorder Symptoms includes an example of flight of ideas: "I need some chocolate. Do I have homework? Do fish breath underwater? Maybe I should phone Anthony. This world seems so messed up. My teacher was so upset. Wait, I forgot to clean the kitchen. Is it going to snow today?"

How Are Racing Thoughts and Flights of Ideas Treated?

Racing thoughts and flights of ideas may be relatively mild or quite severe. When the symptoms are mild, it may be possible to use simple calming techniques:

  • Meditation (meditation is a proven technique for self-calming)
  • Deep Breathing exercises (the physical act of deep breathing can often calm both mind and body)
  • Guided visualization (tapes are available to help refocus racing thoughts to calmer thoughts)
  • Distraction (watching television or otherwise distracting one's mind from the racing thoughts)

When symptoms are very severe, however, the person experiencing the racing thoughts and flights of ideas will not be able to stop and focus on such exercises.

In such cases, it is a good idea to consult a doctor who may be able to provide medication to lower anxiety and/or help manage a manic episode.


Merck Manual

University of Michigan Medical Center -- Children with Challenges

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