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Fact Sheet

Bipolar Disorder

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What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression, is a mood disorder characterized by exaggerated mood swings. Bipolar means two poles—or extremes—and if you have bipolar disorder you are likely to have intense ups and downs. You might experience varying extremes of mania—or “up” periods—and depression— or “down” periods.

Mood episodes

Everyone has ups and downs (including those related to hormonal changes in adolescence and to the menstrual cycle in women). However, bipolar disorder is a medical condition where you have extreme mood swings, or “mood episodes,” widely out of proportion, or totally unrelated to what’s happening in your life. These swings affect your thoughts, feelings, physical health, emotional health, behavior and day-to-day functioning. These symptoms can be extremely disruptive to your life, and distressing to your friends and family.

Every time you experience symptoms at one extreme for at least one week, it is called an episode. People with bipolar disorder experience four main mood episodes—mania, hypomania, depression and mixed mood.

Manic episode (or “Mania”)

A manic episode happens when you experience an unusual and constantly elevated or bad-tempered mood, lasting at least one week.

During times of mania, you might experience:

  • Elevated or euphoric mood. This can include being full of energy and being happy. Euphoria is often described as being on a high or “on top of the world;”
  • Changes in activity levels. You might notice changes in your sleeping and eating patterns;
  • Faster thinking and speaking patterns. Thoughts can be quicker than usual, which might lead you to speak faster and jump from subject to subject;
  • Lack of inhibitions. You might find it more difficult to see what the consequences of your actions could be;
  • Irritability. You might be more likely to be angry or annoyed with others, particularly if they seem to reject your plans or ideas;
  • Unrealistic, or grandiose, plans and beliefs. You might have unrealistic beliefs about your talents. For example, you might believe that you’re a king, queen, film star or religious figure;
  • Risk taking behavior. You might take unnecessary and unsafe risk;
  • Hypersexuality. You might experience increased sexual thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, or use explicit sexual language;
  • Measuring behavior. You might find it hard to decide what behavior is appropriate in a particular situation.

A "hypomanic episode" is similar to a manic episode, with less extreme symptoms. 

Depressive episode

A depressive episode is when you have either a depressed mood or the loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities. This episode typically lasts for at least two weeks.

When you are experiencing a depressed mood you might:

  • Lose interest in day-to-day activities;
  • Feel unusually tired and exhausted;
  • Have no appetite or an increased appetite, and experience changes in body weight;
  • Feel worthless or guilty;
  • Have difficulty concentrating.

Check out the fact sheet on Depression for more information about the characteristics of depression.

Mixed episode

A mixed episode is when you experience both manic and major depressive symptoms nearly every day for at least one week. Your mood might vary with the time of the day.

Types of bipolar disorder

Diagnoses of different bipolar disorders are based on your experience of mood changes, what relatives and friends tell mental health professionals about what they’ve witnessed, professional observation, and an assessment by a psychiatrist or other mental health professional who is licensed to diagnose and treat mental health disorders. Understanding the different classifications of bipolar disorder can help you identifying the best way of managing it.

Bipolar I

Bipolar I is a type of disorder where you experience one or more manic episode or mixed episode, and often one or more major depressive episode. Each depressive episode can last for several weeks or months, alternating with intense symptoms of mania that can last just as long. Between these extremes, you might have periods where life continues normally. Your symptoms can also be affected by changes in season or life situations that come up, like school exams.

Bipolar II

Bipolar II is a type of disorder where you experience one or more major depressive episode, along with at least one hypomanic episode. Between episodes, there might be periods of normal life functioning. Symptoms might also be related to seasonal changes and life situations.

Cyclothymic disorder

Cyclothymic disorder is a chronic, or long-lasting, fluctuating mood pattern that involves periods of hypomania and periods of depression. It is a milder form of bipolar disorder. The duration of the symptoms is shorter, less severe and not as regular.

Bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (NOS)

When symptoms don’t fit any other type of bipolar disorder; it is called bipolar disorder not otherwise specified. Although the experiences of this form of bipolar disorder vary from person to person, someone with bipolar disorder NOS will still experience some variation of manic and depressive episodes. Just like the other types of bipolar disorder, bipolar disorder NOS is a treatable disorder.

Causes of bipolar disorder

Men and women have equal chances of developing bipolar disorder, although men are often diagnosed at an earlier age. Bipolar disorder might be associated with a combination of factors, including genetics, biochemistry, stress and in some cases the seasons. Approximately 1% to 5% of people suffer from bipolar disorder.

Getting help for bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a treatable illness, and usually requires long-term management. Many people with bipolar disorder are creative and intelligent, and with proper management of this condition, can lead full and productive lives. Treatment options are available for managing both mania and depression. It is a good idea to speak to your doctor about which options might be best for you.

Medication. Your local doctor should be able to tell you about what medications are available for bipolar disorder. Most people are referred to a psychiatrist for diagnosis and medical treatment.  Mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics and antidepressants can all be used to control bipolar disorder.

Seeing a counselor or psychologist. If you’re experiencing bipolar disorder, you might also find it helpful to talk with someone like a psychologist, counselor, social worker or other mental health professional. By doing this, you can gain a better understanding of what you’re experiencing. It can also be helpful just to talk about how you feel, and these professionals should help you work out why you feel this way. In most situations, a psychiatrist will manage any medication and monitor your situation, while another mental health professional can assist you to manage your life better. For more information on what kind of professional can help, check out the Get Help section.

Family/friend support network. Family members and friends can help with the day-to-day management of bipolar disorder by providing feedback on mood states, as well as by giving support, friendship, understanding and a non-judgmental listening ear.

Support groups. Bipolar disorder support groups offer valuable first-hand information from others who live with the disorder. You can find support both locally and on the Internet.

Lifestyle. Regulating your eating and sleeping patterns can help you manage bipolar disorder, and can help prevent manic, hypomanic, depressive or mixed episodes.  You should also consider drinking less or no alcohol and not taking drugs.

Stress management and relaxation.  Decreasing stress levels, planning ahead and learning relaxation techniques are also important strategies that can help control bipolar disorder.

Hotlines. When things get tough and you want to talk to someone anonymously about your emotions, or if you’re worried about a friend whom you suspect might be bipolar, you can call youth helpline Your Life Your Voice at 1-800 448-3000, run by Boys Town for everyone. The hotline is free and staffed 24 hours a day with trained volunteers. If you are feeling suicidal, or worred about a friend who might be suicidal or in crisis, you can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Psychiatric hospital. To keep safe and get the best support, it might be necessary to be admitted to hospital during more extreme episodes of mania or depression. Check out the Psychiatric hospitals or wards fact sheet for more info.

Helping someone with bipolar disorder

If you have a friend or a family member who has bipolar disorder, you might want to check out the Supporting someone with a mental illness fact sheet.

Information for this fact sheet

Depression and Bipolar Disorder Support Alliance

National Institute of Mental Health

U.S. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration

Where to Next?

Comments

Responses

  • avatar2

    Reply - Quote

    Yuki

    I fell as if I am showing symptoms of bipolar.
    I when I was 13 I was diagnosed at the time one of the many doctors I saw said something about me maybe being bipolar. After a year the doctors said that I was fine and said I could stop seeing them each week. The thing is I don’t think I was fine. Maybe I was no longer trying to kill myself all the time but I having really bad mood swings. I go from trying to do 5 extra assessments at school at sleeping like an hour a night to a point where nothing has a point and I just kinda stop. My eating in both these times is really bad and I just don’t know how to fix it.
    My up and downs can last of up to 2 months sometimes and people I spend time with can see massive changes in my mood and my opinions. 
    I have ended up with very few people I can call friends as I can not talk to them for weeks and then just start talking to them again and be kinda hyperactive and not stop talking.
    As a 16 year old living in the middle of nowhere without a parent that I can talk to I don’t know what to do. Most of the time I do really want help. I just don’t know what to do.

    What is the best thing to do?

    • avatar1

      Reply - Quote

      ReachOut

      Is it a possibility to contact the doctor that you talked to several years ago, and let them know about the worsening conditions?  Or to seek someone new?  It can be helpful to Google “mental health services” and the name of your state or country to find information and possible resources.

      Is there anyone in your life (it sounds like parents aren’t helpful) who would be a good person to talk to about these things?  Someone that might be able to guide you a bit?  Talking it over can really help.

      If you want to talk it over in our forums, you’re always welcome there.  To get there, just click the word “Forums” at the top of this page, or go here:  http://us.reachout.com/forums/forum.php 

      Take care,
      The ReachOut Crew

  • avatar2

    Reply - Quote

    LifeIsWorthLiving

    I am 18 years old and a female. I’ve had depression for at least 6 years but the past 2 or 3 years have been terrible. This past winter felt so dark for me. Over the last year or two, I’ve started misspelling words and talking fast and messing my words up due to the fast talking. Also, I will get really happy and just start laughing really loudly when at home. I’ll be fine one minute and then someone will say something or do something a certain way and it annoys the hell out of me. I usually don’t fall asleep until 3 am. I’m not sure if this is possibly bipolar, if I should talk to my therapist about it? I don’t want to be a hypochondriac or someone who self diagnoses themselves.

    • avatar1

      Reply - Quote

      ReachOut

      Hey there LifeIsWorthLiving. It sounds like you’re going through a really rough time! We’re really sorry to hear that. You seem very aware of yourself and very smart. Talking to your therapist is a good idea. That way you won’t be wondering what could be happening and your therapist can get you the right help. Come back and let us know how things go!

  • avatar2

    Reply - Quote

    bassoonbookworm

    I’ve been dealing with depression for a long time. And I have been dealing with suicidal thoughts for about a year. I have been hospitalized four times for my episodes of depression. I really feel like I have these symptoms. But I’ve only been diagnosed with depression. I see a psychiatrist regularly, how should I bring this up with her?

    • avatar1

      Reply - Quote

      ReachOut

      We’re so sorry that you’re having this difficult time!  It’s good that you’re seeing a psychiatrist already—that’s a positive step in the right direction.  Seems like you should just be totally honest with your therapist about what’s really going on with you, since that’s the best way to move toward getting better.  You can also make a call to the youth helpline Your Life Your Voice at 1-800-488-3000, and get some more support with this situation.  The helpline is run by Boys Town, which is for everyone, and it’s available 24/7. 

      Being honest and talking about what’s going on is a great first step.  We’re glad you’ve started that process!
      —The ReachOut Crew

  • avatar2

    Reply - Quote

    yeahithinkimlost

    So, I’ve done research, at this and other sites, and I think I’m probably bipolar. How do I talk to my parents about getting diagnosed?

    • avatar1

      Reply - Quote

      ReachOut

      Bipolar is a treatable illness, and you shouldn’t be any more reluctant to discuss it with your family than if you thought you might have any other illness.  But we know it can be hard anyway.  Maybe when you bring it up, focus on the ways you think that treating it will make everyone’s life better. Your family might even be relieved.

      We wish you the best!
      The ReachOut Crew

    • avatar1

      Reply - Quote

      ReachOut

      Hi yeahithinkimlost. Just be honest. Talk to your parents and tell them exactly what you’ve told us, that you’ve done some research, you think you might be bipolar, and would like to see a doctor. Best of luck!

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