Bipolar disorder — which used to be known as manic depression — affects upwards of 1 in 100 adults at some point in their lives.
Its most obvious symptom is very severe mood swings; it is a condition of extreme emotional states.
Someone experiencing the disorder will have periods of great energy and exhilaration at times.
These could last weeks or often several months.
At other times they will experience very deep depressions (there’s more on how mania and depression cycle below).
Sometimes these states are mixed together.
The highs and lows are much greater than most people will experience in their lives.
It’s way more than just feeling full of energy one morning then a little fed up in the afternoon.
During severe episodes it can make the person totally unable to deal with everyday life.
The illness often starts in late teens or the twenties but rarely after 40-years-of-age.
It affects both men and women equally.
During the ‘manic’ phase people experiencing bipolar may have one or more of these 15 feelings and behaviours:
- feeling euphoric: very exhilarated or elated,
- feeling restless,
- aggressive behaviour,
- becoming extremely irritable,
- talking very quickly,
- engaging in risky activities,
- sexual drive elevated,
- thoughts racing quickly through your head,
- poor concentration,
- loads of energy,
- spending too much money on the wrong things,
- reduced need for sleep,
- feeling self-important,
- worsening judgement,
- and misusing drugs or alcohol.
Depressive phases may include one or more of the following 12 thoughts and behaviours.
- daily life no longer of interest,
- feeling hopeless,
- appetite changes,
- empty emotional state,
- excessive guilt,
- suicidal feelings,
- considering oneself worthlessness,
- chronic tiredness,
- problems sleeping or sleeping too much,
- weight gain or loss,
- and concentration problems.
Bipolar disorder is generally categorised into different types depending on how people cycle between manic and depressive phases.
Some people experience mostly strong manic phases and short periods of depression.
Others have mostly heavy depressive phases and short periods of mania.
Still others cycle more quickly between the two.
At the extreme, bipolar people can experience delusions and hallucinations.
In a manic phase this might include believing you are the most important person in the world.
In the depressive phase it could mean believing you are the worst person in the world.
As with many mental health problems, the cause of bipolar disorder is not well known.
However, it is likely a mix of genetic and environmental factors, like stress or childhood abuse.
It is usually treated with psychotherapy and various medications.
Psychotherapy may include strategies for monitoring mood, general coping strategies and underlining the importance of daily routines.
For medication, mood stabilisers like lithium are often tried, as are antidepressants and anticonvulsants.
The combination will depend on the person.
People who receive treatment for bipolar disorder will usually be able to deal with the symptoms in the long-term — that’s not to say it’s easy.
One study found that 98% of people’s symptoms were much improved after two years (Tohen et al., 2003).
However, the same study found that 40% of people had a relapse within a further two years.
Here is a video in which people with bipolar disorder talk about their experience.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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