What is Bipolar Disorder?

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) causes serious shifts in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior–from the highs of mania on one extreme, to the lows of depression on the other. More than just a fleeting good or bad mood, the cycles of bipolar disorder last for days, weeks, or months. And unlike ordinary mood swings, the mood changes of bipolar disorder are so intense that they interfere with your ability to function.

During a manic episode, a person might impulsively quit a job, charge up huge amounts on credit cards, or feel rested after sleeping two hours. During a depressive episode, the same person might be too tired to get out of bed and full of self-loathing and hopelessness over being unemployed and in debt.

The causes of bipolar disorder aren’t completely understood, but it often runs in families. The first manic or depressive episode of bipolar disorder usually occurs in the teenage years or early adulthood. The symptoms can be subtle and confusing, so many people with bipolar disorder are overlooked or misdiagnosed–resulting in unnecessary suffering. But with proper treatment and support, you can lead a rich and fulfilling life.

Myths and Facts About Bipolar Disorder

Myth: People with bipolar disorder can’t get better or lead a normal life.

Fact: Many people with bipolar disorder have successful careers, happy family lives, and satisfying relationships. Living with bipolar disorder is challenging. But with treatment, healthy coping skills, and a solid support system, you can live fully while managing your symptoms.

Myth: People with bipolar disorder swing back and forth between mania and depression.

Fact: Some people alternate between extreme episodes of mania and depression, but most are depressed more often than they are manic. Mania may also be so mild that it goes unrecognized. People with bipolar disorder can also go for long stretches without symptoms.

Myth: Bipolar disorder only affects mood.

Fact: Bipolar disorder also affects your energy level, judgment, memory, concentration, appetite, sleep patterns, sex drive, and self-esteem. Additionally, bipolar disorder has been linked to anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, migraines, and high blood pressure.

Myth: Aside from taking medication, there is nothing you can do to control bipolar disorder.

Fact: While medication is the foundation of bipolar disorder treatment, therapy and self-help strategies also play important roles. You can help control your symptoms by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eating right, monitoring your moods, keeping stress to a minimum, and surrounding yourself with supportive people.

Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder

mood episodes

Bipolar disorder can look very different in different people. The symptoms vary widely in their pattern, severity, and frequency. Some people are more prone to either mania or depression, while others alternate equally between the two types of episodes. Some have frequent mood disruptions, while others experience only a few over a lifetime.

There are four types of mood episodes in bipolar disorder:mania, hypomania, depression, and mixed episodes. Each type of bipolar disorder mood episode has a unique set of symptoms

Signs and symptoms of mania

In the manic phase of bipolar disorder, feelings of heightened energy, creativity, and euphoria are common. People experiencing a manic episode often talk a mile a minute, sleep very little, and are hyperactive. They may also feel like they’re all-powerful, invincible, or destined for greatness.

But while mania feels good at first, it has a tendency to spiral out of control. People often behave recklessly during a manic episode: gambling away savings, engaging in inappropriate sexual activity, or making foolish business investments, for example. They may also become angry, irritable, and aggressive–picking fights, lashing out when others don’t go along with their plans, and blaming anyone who criticizes their behavior. Some people even become delusional or start hearing voices.

Hypomania symptoms

Hypomania is a less severe form of mania. People in a hypomanic state feel euphoric, energetic, and productive, but they are able to carry on with their day-to-day lives and they never lose touch with reality. To others, it may seem as if people with hypomania are merely in an unusually good mood. However, hypomania can result in bad decisions that harm relationships, careers, and reputations. In addition, hypomania often escalates to full-blown mania or is followed by a major depressive episode.

Common signs and symptoms of mania include:

  • Feeling unusually “high” and optimistic OR extremely irritable
  • Unrealistic, grandiose beliefs about one’s abilities or powers
  • Sleeping very little, but feeling extremely energetic
  • Talking so rapidly that others can’t keep up
  • Racing thoughts; jumping quickly from one idea to the next
  • Highly distractible, unable to concentrate
  • Impaired judgment and impulsiveness
  • Acting recklessly without thinking about the consequences
  • Delusions and hallucinations (in severe cases)

Bipolar disorder causes and triggers

Bipolar disorder has no single cause. It appears that certain people are genetically predisposed to bipolar disorder. Yet not everyone with an inherited vulnerability develops the illness, indicating that genes are not the only cause. Some brain imaging studies show physical changes in the brains of people with bipolar disorder. Other research points to neurotransmitter imbalances, abnormal thyroid function, circadian rhythm disturbances, and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

External environmental and psychological factors are also believed to be involved in the development of bipolar disorder. These external factors are called triggers. Triggers can set off new episodes of mania or depression or make existing symptoms worse. However, many bipolar disorder episodes occur without an obvious trigger.

  • Stress – Stressful life events can trigger bipolar disorder in someone with a genetic vulnerability. These events tend to involve drastic or sudden changes–either good or bad–such as getting married, going away to college, losing a loved one, getting fired, or moving.
  • Substance Abuse – While substance abuse doesn’t cause bipolar disorder, it can bring on an episode and worsen the course of the disease. Drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, and amphetamines can trigger mania, while alcohol and tranquilizers can trigger depression.
  • Medication – Certain medications, most notably antidepressant drugs, can trigger mania. Other drugs that can cause mania include over-the-counter cold medicine, appetite suppressants, caffeine, corticosteroids, and thyroid medication.
  • Seasonal Changes – Episodes of mania and depression often follow a seasonal pattern. Manic episodes are more common during the summer, and depressive episodes more common during the fall, winter, and spring.
  • Sleep Deprivation – Loss of sleep—even as little as skipping a few hours of rest—can trigger an episode of mania.

(Source: NIMH)

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