The primary symptoms of bipolar disorder are extreme mood swings

What is bipolar disorder?

You’ve probably heard of bipolar disorder, or manic depression, but what exactly is it? The primary symptoms experienced by people with bipolar disorder are extreme mood swings. These mood swings occur in episodes that alternate between energised highs, called mania or hypomania, and exhausted lows, or depressions. They make it hard to think clearly and also have wide-ranging impacts on daily life. Perhaps you know someone with bipolar who you’d like to understand better, or perhaps you’d just like to learn more. Either way, this post will give you a comprehensive introduction to the what’s, the why’s and the how’s of bipolar disorder.

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

On the broadest level, bipolar disorder expresses itself in two ways, imaginatively named Bipolar type 1 and Bipolar type 2. Both scenarios include the mood swings mentioned above. Bipolar type 1 is characterised by episodes of mania lasting at least a week that require hospitalisation. In Bipolar type 2, mania is less intense and is referred to as hypomania, literally ‘under-mania’. These hypomanic episodes alternate with periods of severe depression which are the hallmark of Bipolar type 2.

What is a manic episode like?

But what is it like to experience mania, hypomania or depression? The experience of mania varies from individual to individual. Some symptoms may even seem desirable to someone without the disorder. Who wouldn’t want to feel overly happy and energetic? And many of us struggle to get enough sleep, wouldn’t it be nice to need less sleep too?

But for someone in the midst of a manic episode, the experience of energetic wakefulness is extreme and unbalanced. In the grip of mania, the relative slowness of other people and the world around can seem unbearably irritating. Feeling constantly energised can make it difficult, if not impossible, to rest or engage in activities that require patient attention. People experiencing mania often talk very fast, changing subjects at high speed. The experience of mania also involves difficulty making good decisions: During a manic episode a person may be unrealistically confident in their actions, or engage in unusually risky behaviour. The symptoms of hypomania are similar to those of mania only less intense and shorter lasting.

What is a depressive episode like?

Depression is the polar opposite of mania, hence the name ‘bipolar disorder’. As with mania, each individual experience of depression is unique, with some symptoms arising more frequently than others. People experiencing a depressive episode may feel deeply sad for an extended period or find themselves inexplicably crying. They might find it difficult to eat and sleep, or find it difficult to maintain regular routines. Many people report that activities that they previously enjoyed no longer give them pleasure. During a depressive episode, emotions such as irritability, anger, worry and agitation are also common. Some people experience persistent feelings of guilt and worthlessness, or find themselves frequently thinking of death or suicide.

Bipolar disorder can make it hard to think clearly and also have wide-ranging impacts on daily life

Bipolar disorder can make it hard to think clearly

and has wide-ranging impacts on daily life

What is bipolar disorder caused by?

he exact causes of bipolar disorder are currently not fully understood. However, there is evidence that certain factors play a significant role in the development of bipolar disorder. One such factor is genetics: There is evidence that people with a family history of bipolar disorder have an increased risk of developing it themselves. Another factor is the external environment: For people who already have a genetic predisposition, experiencing environmental stressors can increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder. Examples of stressors include living in a high-stress environment, being exposed to traumatic events or having an abusive relationship to drugs and alcohol. Recent developments in brain scanning technology have also revealed a third factor: There is evidence that the brains of people with bipolar disorder differ from the brains of people without the disorder.

Who does bipolar disorder affect?

Bipolar disorder is relatively common, with about 1 in 100 people experiencing it at some point in their lives. Symptoms of the disorder typically emerge between the ages of 15-30 and both genders are affected. Women with bipolar are more likely to experience rapid cycling between episodes or episodes with both manic and depressive symptoms. Men with bipolar are more likely to develop symptoms at an earlier age and tend to experience more mania than women.

As mentioned above, genetics play a role in the development of bipolar disorder. People who have a first-degree relative with the disorder are most at risk. Socioeconomic status also plays a role in the development of bipolar disorder: it affects what environmental stressors an individual is exposed to, and what kind of treatment they have access to. Finally, culture is also related to the development of bipolar disorder. Cultural stigma or lack of awareness can hinder diagnosis, and the disorder may become more severe in the absence of appropriate treatment.

1 in 100 people experience bipolar at some point in their lives

1 in 100 people experience bipolar

at some point in their lives

How is bipolar disorder treated?

There are four main approaches to the treatment of bipolar disorder, each of which supports the others. The first approach is treatment with medication. It includes the use of mood stabilisers, antipsychotic medication and antidepressants. These medications aim to reduce the intensity of bipolar symptoms and improve the effects of other treatment approaches, such as psychotherapy. Bipolar disorder creates many challenges, both for those who experience it and for those who live alongside them. Psychotherapy provides support and guidance which can make life with bipolar more manageable.

The third approach to treating bipolar disorder concerns lifestyle and routine. Research shows that the disorganised lifestyle and self-care that often accompanies bipolar disorder can intensify symptoms. Helping people with bipolar to establish regular sleep patterns, a healthy diet and physical exercise can help manage symptom severity. The final approach to bipolar treatment is education. For people with bipolar and their communities, knowledge is key. Whilst we may not fully understand how and why bipolar occurs, there is still a wealth of knowledge about how to live with it. Access to this knowledge can help individuals manage their symptoms, decrease feelings of alienation and make it easier to make informed treatment decisions.

What is the prognosis for those with bipolar disorder?

The outlook for people with bipolar disorder varies a lot from individual to individual. Early diagnosis is important in ensuring access to appropriate treatment and support. Treatment effectiveness is also variable and closely associated with long-term prognosis. Some people may feel strongly motivated to treat their disorder and find it easier to commit to a treatment program, whilst others may find it more challenging to adapt to structured treatment. Despite this variation, many people with bipolar benefit from the combination of correct medication and regular psychotherapy. These people can experience both mood stabilisation and symptom reduction which make it easier for them to lead meaningful and satisfying lives.

Where to get help?

Living with bipolar disorder or someone affected by it can be highly challenging. If you need to talk to someone, please book a session through the link below. Our therapists are experienced, competent and ready to listen to your story.