What Is Bipolar Disorder? The Symptoms, Types, Causes and Treatments You Need to Know About

Dealing with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but there are resources and treatments available

By Outlier Staff
April 29, 2020

Bipolar disorder — previously known as manic depressive disorder or manic depression — is a mental illness marked by dramatic shifts in mood, energy levels, and concentration. Though most people experience highs and lows every day, those living with bipolar disorder go through periods of extreme elation and energy (known as mania), as well as intense bouts of depression that may interrupt their ability to function. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 2.8 percent of American adults had bipolar disorder in the past year. Here is what you need to know about the signs, symptoms, types, causes and treatments of bipolar disorder, as well as resources that can help. 

Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder

The symptoms of bipolar disorder fall into two categories: those associated with mania (or hypomania), and depression. And, as with any mental illness, the symptoms vary from person-to-person. Though people of any age can have bipolar disorder, most diagnoses take place when people are in their teens or early 20s. 

Mania and hypomania

Though mania and hypomania are two different types of episodes, they share the same set of symptoms. Periods of hypomania are less severe, while manic episodes can be disruptive to a person’s daily life. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of a manic or hypomanic episode could include:

  • Being abnormally upbeat, jumpy or wired
  • Increased activity, energy or agitation
  • Exaggerated sense of well-being and self-confidence (euphoria)
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Unusual talkativeness
  • Racing thoughts
  • Distractibility
  • Poor decision-making (like expensive impulse buys or sexual risk-taking)

Major depressive episodes

A person with bipolar disorder also experiences major depressive episodes that tend to be severe enough to impact their daily activities. According to the Mayo Clinic, a major depressive episode typically consists of at least five of the following symptoms:

  • Depressed mood, such as feeling sad, empty, hopeless or tearful (in children and teens, depressed mood can appear as irritability)
  • Marked loss of interest or feeling no pleasure in all — or almost all — activities
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting, weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite (in children, failure to gain weight as expected can be a sign of depression)
  • Either insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Either restlessness or slowed behavior
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Decreased ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • Thinking about, planning or attempting suicide

Types of bipolar disorder

There are three types of bipolar disorders, according to the NIMH. Here is what you need to know about each type:

Bipolar I disorder: manic episodes that last at least seven days, or are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Depressive episodes can also occur, and last at least two weeks, as well as mixed episodes featuring both manic and depressive symptoms. 

Bipolar II disorder: a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, without full-blown manic episodes.

Cyclothymic disorder: also known as cyclothymia, it involves periods of hypomanic and depressive symptoms that last for at least two years (or one year in children and adolescents) that don’t meet the diagnostic requirements for bipolar I or II. 

Causes and risk factors of bipolar disorder

Though researchers don’t know what, precisely, causes bipolar disorder, it is thought to be a combination of the following factors, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Biological differences: specifically, having physical changes in a person’s brain
  • Genetics: it’s more common in people who have a first-degree relative (like a parent or sibling) with the condition
  • A traumatic event or periods of high stress
  • Drug or alcohol misuse

Treatments for bipolar disorder

Like depression, there is no single treatment for bipolar disorder that works for everyone. Because bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, it is important for a person to find the right combination of treatments that works best for them. Typically, this can include medication, therapy, and/or support groups. A variety of medications are used to treat bipolar disorder, including mood stabilizers, antidepressants, antipsychotics, antidepressant-antipsychotics, and anti-anxiety medication. It may take a few attempts before someone with a bipolar disorder finds a medication, or combination of medications, that are most effective for treating their symptoms. 

Therapy is another important tool for treating bipolar disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, four different types of therapy are typically used to treat bipolar disorder

  • Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT): focuses on the stabilization of daily rhythms — like sleeping, waking and mealtimes — with an aim to creating a routine that could help with mood management.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): focuses is identifying unhealthy, negative beliefs and behaviors and replacing them with healthy, positive ones. 
  • Psychoeducation: having knowledge of bipolar disorder can help people better understand their diagnosis. 
  • Family-focused therapy: involving a person’s family as a source of support and communication, with the goal of helping the person stick with their treatment plan and identifying the signs of mood swings.  

At this point, there is very little research into how effective alternative therapies can be for bipolar disorder, and anyone with bipolar disorder who is interested in integrating new treatments into their mental health management plan should discuss it with their medical team first. 

Bipolar disorder resources

If you are experiencing the symptoms of bipolar disorder and need help or support, talk to your health care provider about how you’re feeling. There are also a number of resources available if you or someone you know needs help immediately. There are local and national organizations that can provide support in an emergency situation, including:  

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the free 24-hour online chat to connect with counselors and receive mental health support.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: If you’re experiencing domestic violence, call 1-800-799-7233  or visit the organization’s website for assistance and resources.

Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741 and you’ll be connected to a trained Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line provides free, text-based support 24/7.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN): Call 1-800-656-4673 or visit the RAINN website for 24-hour chat support.

The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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