Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar experience high and low moods—known as mania and depression—which differ from the typical ups-and-downs most people experience.
The average age-of-onset is about 25, but it can occur in the teens, or more uncommonly, in childhood. The condition affects men and women equally, with about 2.6% of the U.S. population diagnosed with bipolar disorder and nearly 83% of cases classified as severe.
If left untreated, bipolar disorder usually worsens. However, with a good treatment plan including psychotherapy, medications, a healthy lifestyle, a regular schedule and early identification of symptoms, many people live well with the condition.
Symptoms and their severity can vary. A person with bipolar disorder may have distinct manic or depressed states but may also have extended periods—sometimes years—without symptoms. A person can also experience both extremes simultaneously or in rapid sequence.
Severe bipolar episodes of mania or depression may include psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions. Usually, these psychotic symptoms mirror a person’s extreme mood. People with bipolar disorder who have psychotic symptoms can be wrongly diagnosed as having schizophrenia.
Mania. To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a person must have experienced at least one episode of mania or hypomania. Hypomania is a milder form of mania that doesn’t include psychotic episodes. People with hypomania can often function well in social situations or at work. Some people with bipolar disorder will have episodes of mania or hypomania many times throughout their life; others may experience them only rarely.
Although someone with bipolar may find an elevated mood of mania appealing—especially if it occurs after depression—the “high” does not stop at a comfortable or controllable level. Moods can rapidly become more irritable, behavior more unpredictable and judgment more impaired. During periods of mania, people frequently behave impulsively, make reckless decisions and take unusual risks.
Most of the time, people in manic states are unaware of the negative consequences of their actions. With bipolar disorder, suicide is an ever-present danger because some people become suicidal even in manic states. Learning from prior episodes what kinds of behavior signals “red flags” of manic behavior can help manage the symptoms of the illness.
Depression. The lows of bipolar depression are often so debilitating that people may be unable to get out of bed. Typically, people experiencing a depressive episode have difficulty falling and staying asleep, while others sleep far more than usual. When people are depressed, even minor decisions such as what to eat for dinner can be overwhelming. They may become obsessed with feelings of loss, personal failure, guilt or helplessness; this negative thinking can lead to thoughts of suicide.
The depressive symptoms that obstruct a person’s ability to function must be present nearly every day for a period of at least two weeks for a diagnosis. Depression associated with bipolar disorder may be more difficult to treat and require a customized treatment plan.
Scientists have not yet discovered a single cause of bipolar disorder. Currently, they believe several factors may contribute, including:
- Genetics. The chances of developing bipolar disorder are increased if a child’s parents or siblings have the disorder. But the role of genetics is not absolute: A child from a family with a history of bipolar disorder may never develop the disorder. Studies of identical twins have found that, even if one twin develops the disorder, the other may not.
- Stress. A stressful event such as a death in the family, an illness, a difficult relationship, divorce or financial problems can trigger a manic or depressive episode. Thus, a person’s handling of stress may also play a role in the development of the illness.
- Brain structure and function. Brain scans cannot diagnose bipolar disorder, yet researchers have identified subtle differences in the average size or activation of some brain structures in people with bipolar disorder.
To diagnose bipolar disorder, a doctor may perform a physical examination, conduct an interview and order lab tests. While bipolar disorder cannot be seen on a blood test or body scan, these tests can help rule out other illnesses that can resemble the disorder, such as hyperthyroidism. If no other illnesses (or medicines such as steroids) are causing the symptoms, the doctor may recommend mental health care.
To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a person must have experienced at least one episode of mania or hypomania. Mental health care professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnose the “type” of bipolar disorder a person may be experiencing. To determine what type of bipolar disorder a person has, mental health care professionals assess the pattern of symptoms and how impaired the person is during their most severe episodes.
Four Types of Bipolar Disorder
- Bipolar I Disorder is an illness in which people have experienced one or more episodes of mania. Most people diagnosed with bipolar I will have episodes of both mania and depression, though an episode of depression is not necessary for a diagnosis. To be diagnosed with bipolar I, a person’s manic episodes must last at least seven days or be so severe that hospitalization is required.
- Bipolar II Disorder is a subset of bipolar disorder in which people experience depressive episodes shifting back and forth with hypomanic episodes, but never a “full” manic episode.
- Cyclothymic Disorder or Cyclothymia is a chronically unstable mood state in which people experience hypomania and mild depression for at least two years. People with cyclothymia may have brief periods of normal mood, but these periods last less than eight weeks.
- Bipolar Disorder, “other specified” and “unspecified” is when a person does not meet the criteria for bipolar I, II or cyclothymia but has still experienced periods of clinically significant abnormal mood elevation.
Bipolar disorder is treated and managed in several ways:
- Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and family-focused therapy.
- Medications, such as mood stabilizers, antipsychotic medications and, to a lesser extent, antidepressants.
- Self-management strategies, like education and recognition of an episode’s early symptoms.
- Complementary health approaches, such as aerobic exercise meditation, faith and prayer can support, but not replace, treatment.
The largest research project to assess what treatment methods work for people with bipolar disorder is the Systematic Treatment Enhancement for Bipolar Disorder, otherwise known as Step-BD. Step-BD followed over 4,000 people diagnosed with bipolar disorder over time with different treatments.
People with bipolar disorder can also experience:
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Substance use disorders/dual diagnosis
People with bipolar disorder and psychotic symptoms can be wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder can be also misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
These other illnesses and misdiagnoses can make it hard to treat bipolar disorder. For example, the antidepressants used to treat OCD and the stimulants used to treat ADHD may worsen symptoms of bipolar disorder and may even trigger a manic episode. If you have more than one condition (called co-occurring disorders), be sure to get a treatment plan that works for you.
Reviewed August 2017