Psychomotor Activity

Understanding psychomotor agitation and retardation

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The term psychomotor refers to physical activity or lack of activity, that is related to mental processes.

Examples of Psychomotor Activity

If you're depressed, you tend to have less psychomotor activity because you feel sluggish and so you probably don't move around as much or you may take longer to do things such as talking or chewing.

If you have bipolar disorder, you may have accelerated psychomotor activity during a manic episode, such as fidgeting or making repetitive movements.

These movements, or lack thereof, are directly related to what's going on in your brain at the time. 

More Meanings of Psychomotor

Coming from the Greek word psyche, meaning soul, breath, mind, and life, and the Latin motare, which means to move, psychomotor has various definitions such as:

  • referring to movement or muscle activity associated with mental processes
  • relating to a combination of psychic and motor events
  • pertaining to or causing voluntary movements related to brain activity

In the end, all these definitions mean pretty much the same thing: physical movement that is related to the mind.

How Does Psychomotor Activity Relate to Bipolar Disorder?

In bipolar disorder, as with other mood disorders, psychomotor activity can be affected in one of two ways. It can be either increased, which is known as psychomotor agitation, or it can be decreased, called psychomotor retardation.

Understanding Psychomotor Agitation

Psychomotor agitation occurs in mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia.

It involves purposeless, agitated and sometimes unintentional movements.

Examples of psychomotor agitation include:

  • Fidgeting 
  • Tapping your foot or fingers repeatedly
  • Pacing
  • Racing thoughts
  • Restlessness
  • Talking faster than normal

Psychomotor Agitation in Bipolar Disorder

In bipolar disorder, psychomotor agitation tends to show up during manic or hypomanic episodes.

 It may manifest itself in these ways during mania or hypomania:

  • More time spent walking or moving around
  • An escalation in behavior that is goal-oriented
  • Socially inappropriate behaviors, such as bragging about your opinions and skills, not picking up on social cues, being overly-friendly and monopolizing conversations 

Understanding Psychomotor Retardation

Psychomotor retardation also occurs in mood disorders like bipolar disorder and depression and happens when your movements become slower or impaired, typically during depressive episodes. Studies show that it's more likely to happen in bipolar I disorder than in bipolar II

Examples of psychomotor retardation include:

  • Having trouble getting out of bed
  • Taking a longer time in between bites of food
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling slowed down and weak
  • Talking more slowly

Treatments for Bipolar Disorder

If you think you may have bipolar disorder, be sure to see your doctor right away. Bipolar disorder is very treatable with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Types of psychotherapy can include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), family and/or couples counseling and group therapy.

Medications typically used to treat bipolar disorder are antipsychotic medications, antidepressants, mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications. Your doctor may use a combination of these medications to help provide relief from symptoms.

Remember that finding the right blend of medications and/or therapy can take some time, trial and error. There are many options to try, so try to be patient in the search for the best ones for you. Keep communication open with your doctor so you can find the best treatment plan for you.


Yildiz, A., Ruiz, P. and Nemeroff, C.B. The Bipolar Book: History, Neurobiology, and Treatment.  Oxford University Press, New York, NY, pg. 37, (2015).

"Bipolar Disorder." Mayo Clinic (2015).

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