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Bipolar Disorder

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is a mental disorder characterized by major mood swings between feeling really "high" and really "low." The mood swings are different from naturally occurring mood changes that everyone experiences.

Bipolar Disorder Symptoms

The "high" feeling is called a manic episode, in which the person experiences an abnormally elevated or irritable mood. During this period, the individual may experience the following symptoms.

  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Racing thoughts
  • Distractibility
  • More talkative than usual
  • Increase in normal activities (e.g. social, occupational)
  • Engaging in impulsive and potentially risky activities (e.g. excessive shopping, sexual indiscretions)

The "low" feeling is called a depressive episode, in which the person experiences either a depressed mood or loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. The individual may also have the following symptoms.

  • Sleep disturbances (either sleeping too little or too much)
  • Significant unintentional weight loss or weight gain
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Restlessness or being slowed down
  • Feeling of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Difficulty in thinking or concentrating
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation

Like other mental disorders, these symptoms can cause a significant amount of distress and impairment in daily life. Bipolar disorder often co-occur with other anxiety disorders, ADHD and impulse-control disorders, and substance use disorders. They are also more likely to have thyroid disease, migraine headaches, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other physical illnesses. People with bipolar disorder are 15 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

How Common Is Bipolar Disorder?

The one-year prevalence for bipolar I disorder (experiencing both manic and depressive episodes) is 0.6% in the United States. Men and women have approximately the same lifetime prevalence, though there are gender differences in the types of symptoms experienced. The age of onset is approximately 18 years, though onset can occur in any period of life.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

There are various kinds of bipolar disorders, which can differ both in severity and symptoms. Some examples are bipolar I, bipolar II, rapid cycling, mixed bipolar, and cyclothymic disorders.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

There is strong evidence for biological causes of bipolar disorder, including genetic and brain structure and function. But like many other mental disorders, environmental factors also play a critical role in inducing onset or exacerbating the symptoms.

Treating Bipolar Disorder

There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but the symptoms can be treated with medications. Depending on the symptoms, people may receive mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, or antidepressants. Psychotherapy can also be effective as an adjunct to medications. The most effective treatment plans typically include a combination of medication and psychotherapy.