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January 15, 2021

Bipolar disorder: Understanding a misunderstood condition

Mental Health Bipolar Disorder

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When you hear that someone has bipolar disorder, a stereotype might come to mind: mood swings, instability, and manic behavior. The extreme way people think about these symptoms contributes to bipolar disorder being a misunderstood mental illness. The truth is, bipolar disorder can destroy relationships, careers, and families if it’s left untreated. The good news is that bipolar disorder is manageable when understood and treated.

At one time, bipolar disorder was known as manic depression. This name came from the two extreme mood swings that those with bipolar disorder may commonly exhibit: emotional highs (mania) and deep lows (depression). Many people experience short periods of mild mood elevation or depression, but those with bipolar disorder experience extreme versions of depression that make them feel completely hopeless, or mania that creates a sense of euphoria or intense irritability. Bipolar disorder symptoms also include hypomania, which is less extreme than a full manic episode.

There are different types of bipolar disorder

Not all people experience bipolar disorder the same way. The condition can best be understood as a “spectrum” of disorders that can affect people in different ways and with varying severity. There are actually several types of bipolar disorder, each with slightly different symptoms:

Bipolar I disorder involves manic episodes lasting seven days or longer, or manic symptoms so severe that they require hospitalization. There are usually also depressive episodes lasting more than two weeks.

Bipolar II disorder features major depressive episodes lasting at least two weeks and hypomanic episodes, but never full-on mania.

Cyclothymic disorder is another type of bipolar disorder where there have been periods of hypomania and depressive symptoms that are present for at least half the time.

Frequency of episodes vary

It’s easy to imagine someone with bipolar disorder constantly swinging back and forth between emotional extremes, but it doesn’t really work that way. Some people with bipolar disorder suffer from mood swings regularly, but many experience them more infrequently. Even the periods between those mood swings vary: some people experience lighter symptoms between their episodes, while others do not have any symptoms at all. You may know someone for quite some time without knowing they suffer from bipolar disorder.

How to get diagnosed

People usually start to show symptoms of bipolar disorder in their teens. That can make diagnosis hard, as families need to differentiate between normal teenage moods and symptoms that are concerning. People with bipolar disorder also tend to experience depressive symptoms much more commonly than manic or hypomanic symptoms, making it easy to confuse bipolar disorder with other depressive illnesses. Those with symptoms should see a medical professional for a diagnosis through psychiatric assessment, mood charting, or other exams.

Some common symptoms of mania or hypomania include:

• feeling jumpy or wired
• increased energy and agitation
• euphoria
• decreased sleep
• talkativeness
• distractibility
• racing thoughts
• rash decision-making

Depressive episodes must include at least five of the following symptoms:

• loss interest in activities
• significant weight loss (unintentional)
• insomnia or oversleeping
• depressed mood
• fatigue
• guilt
• indecisiveness
• slowed behavior
• consideration of suicide

Treatment can make a big difference

Bipolar disorder is a chronic, long-term illness. Since there’s no cure and no way to prevent it, those with bipolar disorder must manage their illness — and the type of treatment they receive can make a huge difference. Treatments often include medications to help balance moods and talk therapy. Continued treatment helps to ensure that small mood changes don’t turn into a full-on relapse.

Many, though not all, people with bipolar disorder, experience significant improvement in later life. People with bipolar disorder often benefit from a strong support network, healthy ways to channel their energy, emotional support, and opportunities to relax. Along with appropriate mental health care, these things help them manage their moods — and live their life to the fullest.

Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.

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