The term "bipolar" refers to having two extremities, in this case, manic and depressive episodes. Formerly referred to as manic depression or manic depressive illness, the National Institute of Mental Health describes bipolar disorder as a mental problem with severe episodes of high and low moods, as well as changes in energy, behavior, sleep, and thinking.
Although everyone experiences mood swings, bipolar disorder involves a chronic mental health condition with extreme mood changes lasting several days, weeks, or even months.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), over 10 million people in the United States have bipolar disorder, accounting for nearly 2.8% of the general population.
Although each type of bipolar disorder results in mood and energy level cycles, the two types of bipolar disorder have their unique characteristics that differ depending on the intensity and duration of mood changes.
Type I bipolar disorder
Bipolar I disorder is considered a "standard" condition characterized by manic and depressive episodes lasting at least seven days. A manic episode often involves an extremely elevated or irritable mood. It includes increased energy, racing thoughts, rapid speech, and increased self-esteem.
A person with bipolar I may have episodes of depression or symptoms of psychosis during depressive or manic episodes. Psychosis entails losing contact with reality, leaving an individual unsure of what's real and what's not.
Common symptoms of psychosis include perceptions, where a person believes untrue things or sees or hears non-existing things. Generally, manic and depressive episodes affect a person's behavior and mood.
Type II bipolar disorder
Bipolar II disorder also involves changes in mood characterized by episodes of hypomania, which is a state of feeling increased energy, irritability, or exhilaration. Hypomania is less severe than mania because the person can typically carry on with their normal, daily functioning. Hypomania is also different from mania because there is no psychosis in hypomanic episodes.
People with bipolar II experience these periods of hypomania that last at least 4 days. Although it is less severe than in bipolar I, depressive episodes also occur for people with bipolar II.
Symptoms of cyclothymic disorder are different from bipolar I and II but involve symptoms of both depression and hypomania. Also referred to as cyclothymia, cyclothymic disorder involves changes between symptoms of depression and mania. A person with cyclothymia often experiences many periods of hypomania and depression for at least 2 years, and the person is never without symptoms for more than 2 months at a time.
About 2.8% of US adults are diagnosed with bipolar disorder every year, with a global population of over 46 million people having the condition.1 Among the different mood disorders, people with bipolar disorder experience the highest likelihood of "severe" impairment (82.9%). Regarding gender, the prevalence of bipolar disorder is similar in both females (2.8%) and males (2.9%).¹
Generally, the first symptoms are displayed at 25 years old. People between 18–29 years old have the highest rates of developing the condition (4.7%), followed by those between 30–44 years old (3.5%). Patients aged 60 years and older have the lowest rates of developing the condition (0.7%).²
A person may be diagnosed with the disorder at 25 years old, but symptoms can appear during the teenage years. Like most mental health illnesses, bipolar disorder affects both males and females equally. However, it may vary in severity from person to person. With the right treatment and support, people with the condition often live productive and full lives.
Generally, people with bipolar disorder experience mania and depression symptoms at different periods of the episode. Yet, symptoms vary between individuals as some people may experience several episodes within one year, while others may have only one episode per year. Some people can go even longer in between episodes.
Bipolar disorder can affect sleep, concentration, self-esteem, and appetite. Some people with the disorder may experience physical health problems, for instance, heart attacks, migraines, or high blood pressure.
Mania and hypomania entail elevated mood changes, but mania is relatively more intense than hypomania. Common symptoms include:
A feeling of distraction or boredom
Involvement in risky behaviors without a care for consequences
Sleeplessness, but without a feeling of tiredness
A sense of exhilaration or euphoria
Underperforming in school or at work
Heightened irritability and aggression
Having unrealistic plans or irrational thinking
Drug and alcohol abuse
Increased sense of well-being and self-confidence
Becoming more impulsive
Excessive happiness, excitement, or hopefulness
Typical symptoms of a depressive episode ("the lows") are:
Insomnia and other sleep issues
A sense of despair, hopelessness, and gloom
Chronic listlessness, tiredness, and fatigue
Eating less or more
Feelings of guilt that may be misplaced
Physical problems or pain, which is unresponsive to treatment
Problems focusing and remembering things
Difficulty enjoying interests or activities that often give pleasure
Weight loss or weight gain
A sense of anxiety over minor issues
Urge for more sleep
Difficulty making decisions
Death or suicidal thoughts
Bipolar disorder can result in prolonged and extreme mood changes if left untreated. For instance, manic episodes can last for up to four months, while bipolar-related depression episodes can last for six months without ongoing treatment. A person with bipolar disorder who does not receive treatment may experience higher risks of the following:
Physical health problems, such as weight gain and cardiovascular conditions
These complications also require treatment, which is typically provided at the same time as bipolar disorder treatment and support, to allow an individual to live a healthier and more productive life. For people with extreme complications, an ongoing treatment plan can help manage the disorder and its effects.
Like most mental health conditions, the precise cause of bipolar disorder remains unknown. However, researchers are studying how some factors can trigger the condition. These include a combination of physical, social, and environmental factors, including emotional stress.
A person with bipolar disorder may have physical changes in the brain. While the significance of these changes is not entirely known, it does help researchers investigate possible causes.
If one person in a family has bipolar disorder, one or more other family members can be more likely to develop the condition. However, the exact genes that cause the disease remain unknown among researchers.
Although the precise cause of bipolar disorder remains unknown, certain risk factors increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder. These risk factors can trigger the first episodes of mania or depression, leading to chronic mood changes. These risk factors include:
Change in brain structure and functioning
The general structure and function of the brain differ from person to person suffering from bipolar disorder. Researchers suggest that the way neurotransmitters interact with neurons may play a role in contributing to the development of the condition.
Existing mental health issues
People with other mental conditions are more likely to develop bipolar disorder, especially when their conditions go untreated for long periods of time. Depression, anxiety, and emotional stress can lead to mental conditions that can trigger bipolar disorder in some people.
Some people may develop bipolar disorder originating from family history. Suppose you have one or more family members, mainly a parent or sibling, diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This places you at a higher risk of developing the condition. According to researchers, several genes may result in bipolar disorder, but the specific gene remains unknown.
Most cases of the first symptoms of bipolar disorder commence when a person is between 15–19 years old. However, most people experience severe symptoms of the condition between 20–24 years old.
If you or a loved one is experiencing extreme mood changes, it is essential to seek support or medical help. A mental health professional can determine whether you have bipolar disorder. A professional will ask various questions, such as how your moods affect your daily life, the duration of your mood changes, and its severity.
Diagnosing bipolar disorder calls for various health examinations, including physical, mental, and lab tests, to determine if you are suffering from another medical condition that could be causing symptoms. An assessment of your mental state will eventually determine if you have bipolar disorder or not. Here are some evaluations you may undergo during your diagnosis.
A physical exam, together with lab tests, can determine if you have underlying issues causing your symptoms. The intent is to rule out physical problems as the possible cause of your mental health concerns.
Your psychiatrist conducts a thorough psychiatric assessment to understand your feelings, behaviors, and thought patterns. This may include a psychological self-assessment or questionnaire to determine your mental state. Sometimes, your psychiatrist may need a family member or friend to offer more information regarding your symptoms with your permission.
The DSM-5 criteria
Your psychiatrist may compare symptoms you are experiencing using criteria for bipolar and related disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association used to assess and diagnose mental disorders.¹
Bipolar disorder is a long-term problem that requires ongoing care for treatment to be effective. However, people experiencing four or more episodes yearly or those with drug and alcohol problems can have a more complex case that is harder to treat. Bipolar disorder treatment involves continuous medication, psychological therapy, and lifestyle changes to treat the condition effectively. The following are ways to treat bipolar disorder:
Several drug treatments exist to help stabilize your mood and manage bipolar disorder symptoms. A doctor may prescribe a combination of drugs to help manage the condition. Generally, a combination of these drugs can help treat bipolar disorder:
Mood stabilizers, like lithium
Anticonvulsants to manage mania
Drugs to assist with anxiety and sleep
Second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs)
Over time, the prescribing doctor may alter medications depending on the recovery process of the patient. Some drugs have side effects that may affect individuals differently, so it is essential to consult your doctor if you experience severe side effects.
Psychotherapy and counseling are among the most effective ways to help patients with bipolar disorder relieve their symptoms and manage the condition. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other approaches can help an individual achieve the following:
Realize and take necessary steps to manage critical triggers, like emotional stress
Identify initial symptoms of mania or depression episode and take steps to manage it
Consider elements that maintain a stable mood for longer, like socializing, sleeping, and exercising
Get help from family members, colleagues, teachers, and other supportive people
Family therapy comes in handy for young people with bipolar disorder to help them manage the condition more effectively.
For people with severe bipolar disorder symptoms, a doctor may recommend hospital treatment, especially those at the risk of harming themselves or others or intending to commit suicide. If medication, therapy, or other treatment options fail, a doctor may suggest electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to help manage the condition.
Some lifestyle remedies exist to help manage bipolar disorder symptoms and maintain a stable mood. Common lifestyle changes that can help treat depressive and manic episodes include:
Maintaining a routine
Engaging in regular exercise
Creating a regular sleep schedule and determining steps to avoid sleep disturbances
Adhering to a healthful and varied diet
It is always advisable to discuss any lifestyle changes you intend to make with your doctor since some may worsen symptoms.
Living with bipolar disorder requires a combination of treatment strategies, ranging from lifestyle changes to medication, stress management, social support, and a better understanding of the condition. Finding the right support network is a critical element to recovery since you have someone to lean on during your "lows." That said, here are action strategies to help you cope with bipolar disorder.
Isolating yourself increases the possibility of mood changes, which can affect your health and potentially lead to bipolar disorder symptoms. Connecting with family members, colleagues, and close friends, including your doctor and psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor, enables you to have a strong support system. Besides, social support helps to keep you busy and engaged in positive activities, preventing depressive episodes associated with the condition.
Education begins with understanding bipolar disorder, primarily specific symptoms of depressive and manic episodes. Always be in the know about the latest research-driven treatment options and share any questions and concerns you have with your treatment providers and support team. Understanding the illness allows you to easily manage the condition and identify triggers leading to manic or depressive episodes.
Track your symptoms
Tracking your daily mood, behavior, and thinking is crucial when managing your symptoms. Besides, it plays a critical role in decreasing mood episodes' intensity, as you can quickly pinpoint small changes and prevent them before they worsen. Tracking stressors and behaviors, such as substance abuse, relationship conflicts, and lack of sleep enables you to manage the condition more efficiently.
Establish a routine
Establishing a healthy daily routine is an important coping strategy for preventing depression or mania. Taking your medication as prescribed, getting adequate sleep, and exercising regularly can help improve and stabilize your mood. Schedule time to interact with friends, family and attend your doctor's appointments. Also, create time to relax and relieve stress from daily life.
Develop a crisis plan
Sometimes, even by following a healthy plan and using bipolar disorder coping skills, you may be unable to stabilize your mood episodes. Developing a crisis plan is crucial to help you manage your mood cycles when they are at their worst, especially during manic and depressive episodes. A written plan with a list of medications, warning signs, emergency contacts, and a hotline number you can call when experiencing extreme symptoms helps you better manage the condition during a crisis.
Various treatment options for bipolar disorder exist, ranging from lifestyle changes to counseling and medication. However, these treatment options require professional help to ensure patients receive the ideal treatment, counseling, and support. Primary care doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health counselors, nurses, and social workers can help diagnose and treat bipolar disorder.
They are medical doctors who specialize in mental health care, primarily identifying drugs best suited for specific patients and symptoms. Generally, they oversee the entire treatment of the condition, including adjusting the medication of a patient.
Also referred to as general practitioners, family practitioners, pediatricians, or internists, primary care doctors are general medical doctors with knowledge of mental health. They provide medication treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Although they can diagnose and treat bipolar disorder, a primary care doctor would refer a patient to a psychiatrist for more specialized care.
These are specialists who provide psychotherapy or talk therapy, a critical element in treating bipolar disorder. The treatment method allows a person to develop coping methods, preventing long periods of illness and extreme symptoms. Psychologists also perform neuropsychological and psychological testing when diagnosing an individual with bipolar disorder.
Some nurses receive further training in managing mental conditions to help patients with bipolar disorder recover. Typically, nurses may obtain advanced training in administrative leadership, bipolar research methods, and teaching, crucial for diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder.
Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are among the severe symptoms of bipolar disorder. If you have thoughts of harming yourself or others, call 911 or your local emergency number to get help.
You can also visit an emergency room or contact a trusted friend, relative, or colleague for help. In the US, you can call a suicide hotline number directed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). If someone you love, a close friend, or a colleague has made a suicide attempt due to bipolar disorder or has talked about suicide, you can take the individual to a local or nearby hospital emergency room for assistance or call 9-1-1.
Children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop bipolar disorder and other mental health-related issues in adulthood. Although researchers are yet to determine the neurobiological connection between ADHD and bipolar disorder, it is estimated that 9–35% of adults who have bipolar disorder have ADHD.¹
Several differences exist between bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder aside from both conditions being characterized by mood changes. Bipolar disorder involves symptoms of mania and depression, while a person with BPD experiences intense emotional pain and a sense of desperation, loneliness, emptiness, anger, and hopelessness. BPD mood changes are short-lived, lasting for a few hours, while bipolar disorder symptoms last for several days or weeks.
There are no tests, whether blood tests or brain scans, that can determine if you have bipolar disorder or not. However, your doctor may perform specific physical exams and lab tests like urinalysis and thyroid function tests during the process of diagnosis. The intent is to ensure the symptoms you are experiencing are not caused by physical issues.
With bipolar disorder involving manic and depressive episodes, you can help a loved one with the condition with their daily activities during episodes of depression since they lack the energy to meet their responsibilities. During mania, coping with reckless antics, explosive outbursts, and irresponsible decisions can help. Other ways to help someone with bipolar disorder include:
Showing patience and being optimistic
Encouraging the person to get help
Provide support, especially during their treatment
Be a good listener