What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a form of depression in which people have episodes of depression and periods of mania. Unfortunately, bipolar disorder remains one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses in our society.

For example, people often use the word “bipolar” when they refer to things that change quickly. Someone may say that the weather is “bipolar” if it is both sunny and stormy within the same day.

Not only does this make light of a very difficult disorder, but it also mischaracterizes the swings in a person’s mood when they have bipolar disorder. People with this disorder stay in either the depressive or manic state for long periods of time.


Cyclothymic Disorder

The mental health community sets a high bar for formal bipolar disorder diagnoses. This means that some people live through times of mania and depression without qualifying for a bipolar disorder diagnosis. These patients sometimes have shorter episodes or they may have fewer per year.

These patients typically have what is known as cyclothymic disorder. Behavioral health professionals typically use the same treatment options for people with bipolar disorder and cyclothymic disorder.


Bipolar 1 vs 2

As with many mental and behavioral disorders, there is more than one type of bipolar disorder, namely bipolar I and bipolar II.

Bipolar I is the more severe of the two kinds. People with bipolar I have manic periods that last for at least a week and depressive episodes that go on for at least two weeks. Some patients may qualify for bipolar I diagnoses if they have shorter periods of distress but require hospitalization during those times.

Patients with bipolar II have less severe symptoms that last for less time. However, this description should not take away from the fact that people with bipolar II still deserve compassion and treatment.


Signs of Bipolar Disorder

The cycle between mania and depression is the primary characteristic of both types of bipolar disorder. It’s important for people to recognize the symptoms of both stages of bipolar disorder.

During manic periods, individuals have lots of energy and feel like they are on top of the world. At first glance, this may seem like a wonderful thing and not a dangerous symptom. However, people with bipolar disorder take this elation to extremes. They may take physical risks because they think they are invincible, buy things that they cannot afford, or even stop trying to maintain their relationships.

Manic symptoms include:

  • Taking excessive risks, including gambling and driving recklessly
  • High energy levels that can make it difficult to sleep
  • Elation, even in the face of sad events
  • Fighting people who try to stop them from taking risks
  • Racing thoughts

During depressive periods, people with bipolar disorder experience low energy and emotions. In severe cases, individuals may feel so low that they are unable to rise from bed or take care of themselves. Worst of all, people in this state may have suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Depressive symptoms include:

  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Reduced energy levels, fatigue
  • No interest in favorite hobbies
  • Appetite changes in either direction
  • Sleeping too much or not sleeping enough
  • Feeling empty or hopeless

Is There a Bipolar Test?

Behavioral health professionals look at a person’s symptom patterns to determine whether they may have bipolar disorder. They often have patient complete scientifically tested surveys to get a picture of the person’s emotional history.

When they first assess patients, professionals may take extensive notes and ask invasive questions about symptoms. This can feel uncomfortable for some patients, but it is necessary. Therapists will demonstrate compassion for the patient, not judgement.

Comorbid Conditions

Bipolar disorder often presents with other mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders. Some of the most common comorbid conditions include:

  • Substance abuse
  • ADHD
  • Psychosis
  • Anxiety disorders

Therapists may screen patients for these disorders during their initial consultations as well. After all, it’s important to treat the whole patient, not just one disorder.

The tests for comorbid disorders are often similar to the ones for bipolar disorder. Individuals answer questions about their feelings and behaviors. Professionals then evaluate these answers to determine the patient’s needs.


Bipolar Disorder Treatments

Treatment options for bipolar disorder include medications, talk therapy, and a combination of both. When patients present with severe symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts, professionals may recommend residential treatment in which patients receive round-the-clock care.

Talk Therapy

Therapists may use any of the following methods to help patients with bipolar disorder:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT)
  • Family-focused therapy

CBT helps patients discover what triggers their symptoms. Then, therapists help patients recognize their stressors and respond with better coping mechanisms.

In IPSRT, patients learn about their unique biology, as well as how it changes their social interactions and emotions. Individuals can then use this information to decrease their symptoms and stabilize their feelings.

Patients can bring the supportive people in their lives to counseling sessions for family-focused therapy. Mental health professionals then teach both the patient and their support system about bipolar disorder and the types of coping strategies they can use. This method ensures that patients stay healthy and safe between counseling appointments.

Medication Options

Some prescription medications can help people with bipolar disorder minimize their symptoms. The available options include:

  • Mood stabilizers
  • Antidepressants
  • Sleep aids
  • Antipsychotics

It’s important for patients to note that it can take time to find the right combination of medications. Medication management and frequent visits can help.

Additional Bipolar Treatment Options

Talk therapy and medication can work well for many people with bipolar disorder. However, some patients do not tolerate medication well and still need something to go with their talk therapy treatment. For these people, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) can offer relief.

As with all medical treatments, some negative side effects are possible with ECT. For example, patients can experience confusion and some memory loss. However, doctors do not recommend ECT unless they believe the benefits outweigh the risks.

Life charts give people with bipolar disorder a noninvasive alternative treatment option. With this method, patients write down medications, the day’s events, and their symptoms each day. Then, they show the chart to their mental health teams. The professionals analyze the insights and make more personalized treatment recommendations.


How Common is Bipolar Disorder?

Approximately 2.6 percent of adults in the United States have bipolar disorder. This comes out to about 5.7 million American adults. However, it’s difficult to estimate the number of minors who live with the disorder.

Members of the mental health community do not agree on how and if children can receive bipolar disorder diagnoses. Some researchers argue that about 750,000 kids and teens in America live with bipolar disorder but do not have diagnoses.


Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder

Researchers have not found a singular cause of bipolar disorder, but they have found some risk factors. Some evidence points to a genetic cause for bipolar disorder because it seems to run in genetically related families.

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