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What is bipolar disorder? Symptoms and treatments

Reviewed by therapist.com team

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What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by extreme shifts in mood and energy. People with bipolar disorder swing from mania or hypomania (“high highs”) to depression (“low lows”).

Manic vs. Depressive Episodes

Formerly known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is characterized by two opposing emotional states: mania and depression. The world “bipolar” refers to these two “poles” of emotion.

People with bipolar disorder can experience less extreme moods in between manic and depressive episodes. However, in some cases, people may experience symptoms of mania and depression simultaneously. These “mixed” episodes, which are not severe or extensive enough to result in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, are known as depression with mixed features.

What Is Mania?

When a person with bipolar disorder is experiencing mania, they’ll feel overly confident and full of energy. They may engage in risky, impulsive behavior or experience hallucinations.

Hypomania is a less extreme form of mania that doesn’t result in delusions or reckless risk-taking.

What Is Depression?

The polar opposite of mania is depression. People with bipolar disorder who go through a depressive episode experience the same symptoms of major depression. A therapist can help you determine if your depressive symptoms are indicative of clinical depression or a bipolar depressive episode.

Signs & Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Symptoms of bipolar disorder change depending on what kind of episode a person is experiencing. For example, manic episodes are characterized by high self-confidence, while depressive episodes are connected to low self-esteem.

Still, some signs of bipolar disorder are consistent regardless of whether the person is experiencing mania or depression. Typical symptoms of bipolar disorder include:

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Insomnia, or less need for sleep
  • Decreased appetite

Manic Symptoms

Symptoms of mania include:

  • Feeling overly happy or excited
  • High energy
  • Speaking very quickly
  • Poor decision-making
  • Increased sexual desire
  • Risky or impulsive behaviors
  • Sudden shifts to intense levels of irritability

Depressive Symptoms

Bipolar depression symptoms are the same as those for clinical depression, including:

  • Sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in activities that once brought pleasure or joy
  • Low energy
  • Speaking slowly
  • Low sexual desire
  • Anxiety or restlessness
  • Suicidal thoughts (suicidal ideation)

Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens

If your child or teenager is exhibiting signs of bipolar disorder, seek a professional opinion from their doctor and/or a therapist.

It is often difficult to diagnose children and teens with bipolar disorder. Many bipolar symptoms can also point to other forms of mental illness, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Also, mood swings are common even in children and teens without mental illness, especially as they go through puberty.

3 Types of Bipolar Disorder

1. Bipolar I

Bipolar I is characterized by manic and depressive episodes. Manic episodes last at least a week or result in hospitalization, while depressive episodes last at least two weeks. People with bipolar I may also experience depression with mixed features. This form of bipolar disorder typically has the most extreme symptoms.

2. Bipolar II

People with bipolar II experience hypomanic and depressive episodes. However, they don’t experience full-on mania.

3. Cyclothymic Disorder

People with cyclothymic disorder have experienced hypomanic and depressive symptoms for at least two years (or one year for children and teens). These symptoms may not be severe enough to match the specific definitions of hypomania or major depression.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

Just like with depression or other forms of mental illness, there is no single, exact cause of bipolar disorder. However, there are certain risk factors that can increase your likelihood for developing bipolar disorder.

Common Risk Factors

  • Biochemistry: Studies have shown a connection between chemical imbalances in the brain and bipolar disorder.
  • Genetics: You may be at an increased risk for bipolar disorder if someone in your biological family has been diagnosed with it.

In addition, certain factors can trigger bipolar symptoms in people who exhibit a genetic or biological susceptibility for the disorder. These triggers include substance use, physical illness, trauma, and sleep disturbances.

Is Bipolar Disorder Hereditary?

Genetics certainly play a role in who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but they don’t have the final say.

It’s true that you have a higher risk for bipolar disorder if someone else in your family has been diagnosed with it. However, it’s not a simple guarantee that you will have bipolar disorder if your parent has it. Additionally, a person can be diagnosed with bipolar disorder even if they have no family history of mental illness.

Strategies for Managing and Treating Bipolar Disorder

When treating bipolar disorder, therapists will typically rely on medication, psychotherapy, or some combination of treatments.

Medical Therapy

Mood stabilizers, antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs, and other medications for bipolar disorder can be effective on their own or alongside other psychotherapies. Your psychiatrist may prescribe you anti-anxiety pills or sleep medication to help with some of your symptoms.

There are also other forms of medical therapy outside of medications that may be helpful for bipolar disorder. For individuals with more severe symptoms (e.g., severe mania, depression, psychosis, or suicidality), electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may prove effective. These forms of treatment directly stimulate the brain via electric or magnetic waves, respectively, to help treat the disorder.

Psychotherapy

Talk therapy can be effective for people struggling with bipolar disorder. Your therapist may choose from a number of methods to help you strengthen your mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you challenge unhelpful thought patterns, while interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) can help you establish stability through a daily routine.

Lifestyle Changes

Many people with bipolar disorder benefit from lifestyle changes that can help alleviate some of their symptoms. While these changes can certainly help, they are not a cure and should not be used in isolation of other forms of professional treatment.

Common lifestyle changes for bipolar disorder include:

  • Following a daily routine
  • Sleeping, eating, and exercising regularly
  • Avoiding alcohol and drugs
  • Trying new hobbies
  • Keeping a journal of your moods and symptoms
  • Investing in healthy relationships

“Am I Bipolar?”

If you recognize any of the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder in your own life, speak with your doctor. No website, friend, or family member can diagnose you with a mental health condition. Only a doctor can formally diagnose you with bipolar disorder or any other mental illness.

1. See Your Regular Doctor

A good first step is to see your primary care physician (PCP) and share your symptoms and concerns. They can conduct lab tests and a physical to rule out other health conditions that may have similar symptoms.

2. Speak with a Therapist

Your doctor may refer you to a therapist, or you may choose to seek one out on your own. Either way, your therapist can evaluate your symptoms and give you a more in-depth view of your diagnosis.

Your therapist may diagnose you with bipolar disorder, or they may identify your symptoms as indicative of other disorders, such as anxiety or depression. Whatever your formal diagnosis is, your therapist can offer treatment methods to help you live a healthier life. Click here to find a bipolar disorder therapist near you.

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