What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that can cause a person to experience intense mood swings. 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 and energetic), 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, but people with bipolar II never have a manic episode. Unfortunately, this can make it harder for them to suspect they might have a mood disorder.
  • Cyclothymic disorder, or cyclothymia: This condition involves mood changes that are similar to bipolar I and bipolar II, but are less intense. The moods usually have to have been happening for at least two years, and only with eight weeks at most of a normal mood in between.
  • Other specified bipolar and related disorder: This diagnosis is given when a person exhibits any of the above symptoms, but doesn’t fit the clinical criteria in some way – for example, if a person has had clinically significant mood changes for under two years. Another reason someone might be diagnosed with unspecified bipolar disorder could be that their symptoms are brought on by a medication or a 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 extremely difficult for people with any form of bipolar disorder to even 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 go to their health provider in 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 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, despite any uncertainty. 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 on its own, 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 won’t make bipolar disorder go away, but it’s still important because it helps people with the condition manage their lives in spite of their illness. Through psychotherapy, people with bipolar disorder can better accept their diagnosis, understand how their brain works, and manage stress, triggers, or 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. Each medication carries its own risk for side effects, so be sure to talk to your provider about which medications are best for you, especially if you are breastfeeding. As helpful as medication is, it’s not uncommon for people with bipolar disorder to stop taking their medication so they can experience the exhilaration that accompanies certain moods. This makes medication management especially important for individuals with bipolar disorder.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): This involves a controlled electric current that passes through the brain and stimulates neurotransmitter levels. It’s used to treat more severe cases of mental disorders, particularly cases where people don’t respond to medication or psychotherapy. Possible short-term side effects include disorientation and memory loss.

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 continually get treatment, and not to stop as soon as they feel better. Actively managing bipolar disorder is the key to living 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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