What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that can cause a person to experience intense extreme high and low moods, and abrupt mood changes. These changes in mood can last anywhere from days, to weeks, to months. The specific moods experienced by someone with bipolar disorder vary, but usually they’re characterized as being manic (extremely high energy and excitement), hypomanic (more mildly manic), or depressed (extremely low, lethargic, and sad). Sometimes, a person with bipolar disorder can experience two opposing moods at the same time.

Types of bipolar disorder

There are four different types of bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, they are categorized as follows.

  • Bipolar I: Out of the four different types, bipolar I is the most extreme. To be diagnosed, a person must have a manic episode that lasts for at least a week, or a manic episode that is so extreme they need to be hospitalized. People with bipolar I usually also have episodes of depression, but only a manic episode is required for a diagnosis.
  • Bipolar II: A bipolar II diagnosis is four times more common than bipolar I. It involves fluctuations between depression and hypomania, rather than mania. Unfortunately, this can make it harder for them to suspect they might have bipolar disorder.
  • Cyclothymic disorder, or cyclothymia: This condition involves mood changes that are similar to bipolar I and bipolar II, but are less intense. It is diagnosed when moods have been present for at least two years, and only with eight weeks at most of a normal mood in between.
  • Other bipolar disorders: Sometimes a person exhibits some features of bipolar disorder, but doesn’t neatly meet the criteria for one of the diagnoses listed above. For example, the symptoms might last for a shorter period of time or be brought on by a medication or medical condition. This kind of diagnosis might seem vague, but it’s important as it allows for careful monitoring in case a person’s condition becomes more severe.

Getting a diagnosis

Misdiagnosis is common among people with bipolar disorder, because some of the typical symptoms look similar to other mental health conditions. It can also be difficult for people with any form of bipolar disorder to recognize that they need help. Some bipolar symptoms, like high energy levels and a sense of exhilaration, feel good, especially after a period of depression, so people often won’t seek the help from their healthcare providers during these periods.

Episodes of mania can be characterized by things like sleeplessness, anger, or impulsivity (like shopping sprees or binging on drugs/alcohol/sex). Episodes of depression can be characterized by a lack of interest in hobbies or activities, physical pain or illness, and thoughts of death. If you suspect that you or someone you know has emotional ups and downs that look like manic and depressive episodes, it’s worth going to a health provider for an evaluation, even if you don’t feel sure. Bipolar disorder in any form can have a major impact on a person’s life.

At the appointment, the provider will ask questions about personal and family medical history, and medication use. They will perform a physical exam to make sure that the symptoms aren’t caused by a physical condition, and then either they or another mental health professional will conduct a thorough mental health evaluation.

Getting treated

Bipolar disorder doesn’t go away, but it can be managed effectively. Treatment varies widely from person to person, and usually involves a few of the following.

  • Psychotherapy: Therapy is important because it helps people with the condition manage their lives and emotional responses. Through psychotherapy, people with bipolar disorder can learn to identify triggers and manage stress and develop healthy daily routines for living with the illness.
  • Medications: Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder, meaning that after therapy, medication is typically the first step in treatment. Common medications for bipolar disorder include mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications. They help balance out a person’s moods which in turn makes other forms of treatment more likely to be successful. As helpful as medication is, it’s not uncommon for people with bipolar disorder to stop taking their medication when they feel better. This makes medication management especially important for individuals with bipolar disorder.

A lot of people with a bipolar diagnosis find that in addition to the above forms of treatment, some other strategies can be helpful as well. Getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol and drugs, mood tracking, meditation, getting enough sleep, joining support groups or finding a supportive community online, addressing substance abuse through therapy, and finding healthy outlets for emotions are all ways that people manage their symptoms can contribute to positive outcomes. It’s also extremely important for people with bipolar disorder to continue with treatment, and to stick with treatment plans even when they’re feeling better. Actively managing bipolar disorder can be a key to a happy and healthy life.

Read more
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Bipolar disorder: Coping and Support.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Jul 6 2016. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Bipolar disorder: Symptoms.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Jul 6 2016. Web.
  • “Bipolar disorder: Definition.” NIMH. US Department of Health and Human Services, Apr 2016. Web.
  • Healthline Editorial Team and Kathryn Watson. “Could it be bipolar? Seven Signs to Look For.” Healthline. Healthline Media, May 18 2016. Web.
  • “Bipolar disorder.” NAMI. National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2016. Web.
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