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 (a euphoric feeling, extreme increase in energy), or hypomanic (lesser degree of mania), and depressed (low mood, fatigue, loss of interest in things). Sometimes, a person with bipolar disorder can experience two opposing moods at the same time.

Some evidence suggests that pregnancy can make bipolar episodes more likely to recur, but the data isn’t conclusive.

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 diagnosis more difficult.  
  • 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 disordersSometimes a person exhibits some features of bipolar disorder, but doesn’t exactly 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

It can be challenging to diagnose bipolar disorder, because some of the typical symptoms look similar to other mental health conditions. It can also be extremely difficult for people with any form of bipolar disorder to recognize how much they are affected, or that they need help. Some bipolar symptoms, like high energy levels and a sense of exhilaration, may feel good, especially after a period of depression, so people may not go to their healthcare provider in these periods.

If you suspect that you or someone you know has emotional ups and downs that look like manic, hypomanic or depressive episodes, it’s worth speaking to your primary care or obstetric care provider. Bipolar disorder is treatable, but if untreated, it can lead to significant complications.  

Getting treated

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

  • Psychotherapy: Therapy is an important part of treatment. Through psychotherapy, people with bipolar disorder can better manage stress, triggers, or put healthy daily routines in place for living with the illness.
  • Medications: Common medications for bipolar disorder include mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications. In the right combinations and dosages, these medications can help balance a person’s moods which in turn makes other forms of treatment more likely to be successful. Each medication carries its own risk for side effects, so be sure to talk to your provider. Since untreated bipolar disorder comes with risks for the mother and pregnancy, it is generally best for women with bipolar disorder to stay on medications that are working during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as it’s likely that any risks of medication are outweighed by the risks of a recurrence of episodes. However, certain medications will require close monitoring, so be sure to discuss your medication use honestly with your team.

A lot of people with a bipolar diagnosis find that in addition to the above forms of treatment, some other things can be helpful as well. Mood tracking, meditation, getting enough sleep, joining support groups or finding a supportive community online, addressing substance use through therapy, and finding healthy outlets for emotions are all ways that people manage their symptoms. It’s also extremely important for people with bipolar disorder to stay in treatment, even if they feel better. Actively managing bipolar disorder is key to managing the condition and decreasing any risks of negative consequences.

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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