eating disorders help & support mental health news & info contact us pale reflections home RSS feed go login help register

bipolar disorder

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, sometimes known as manic depression, is characterized by extreme mood swings. The sufferer experiences feelings of sadness and hopelessness (depression) as well as feelings of irritability or huge elation (mania). In between, they also have periods of normal mood.

In addition to being distressing for the person affected, bipolar disorder usually affects their family, work and social life. The frequency and severity of the mood swings varies from person to person. The disorder often makes it impossible to function properly in every day activities.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that there are two main forms of bipolar disorder:
  • Bipolar I disorder – the classic form of the illness, which involves recurrent episodes of mania and depression
  • Bipolar II disorder – the sufferer experiences milder episodes of hypomania that alternate with depression (they do not experience severe mania)
When a sufferer experiences four or more episodes within a 12-month period, they are said to have a rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Rapid-cycling tends to develop later in the illness and is more common among women than men.

Bipolar disorder typically manifests itself in adolescence or early adulthood and can continue throughout an individual’s life. It is not always initially recognized as a serious disorder and people can suffer for years before a proper diagnosis is made.

Children with bipolar disorder tend to experience a higher frequency of mood changes (mania to depression) than adults. For example, they may have multiple "highs" and "lows" each day rather than more clearly defined periods of mania and depression that many adults experience. Studies suggest that bipolar disorder is more likely to affect the children of parents who have the illness.

Severe episodes of mania or depression can sometimes include symptoms of psychosis. Common psychotic symptoms are hallucinations (hearing, seeing, or otherwise sensing the presence of things not actually there) and delusions (false, strongly held beliefs not influenced by logical reasoning or explained by a person’s usual cultural concepts). Psychotic symptoms in bipolar disorder tend to reflect the extreme mood state at the time. For example, delusions of grandiosity, such as believing one is the President or has special powers or wealth, may occur during mania; delusions of guilt or worthlessness, such as believing that one is ruined and penniless or has committed some terrible crime, may appear during depression. People with bipolar disorder who have these symptoms are sometimes incorrectly diagnosed as having schizophrenia (National Institute of Mental Health).


Facts and statistics

According to Mental Help Net, it is estimated that bipolar disorder affects up to 2 million Americans at any one time.

Approximately 1% of the U.S. population aged 18 or older have bipolar disorder in any one given year (National Institute of Mental Health).
Symptoms of a manic episode

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, manic episode is diagnosed if elevated mood occurs with three or more of the following symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for one week or longer (if the mood is irritable, four additional symptoms must be present):
  • Increased energy, activity, and restlessness
  • Excessively "high," overly good, euphoric mood
  • Extreme irritability
  • Racing thoughts and talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another
  • Distractibility, can’t concentrate well
  • Little sleep needed
  • Unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities and powers
  • Poor judgment
  • Spending sprees
  • A lasting period of behavior that is different from usual
  • Increased sexual drive
  • Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping medications
  • Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior
  • Denial that anything is wrong

Symptoms of a depressive episode

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a depressive episode is diagnosed if five or more of the following symptoms last most of the day, nearly every day, for a period of two weeks or longer:
  • Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, including sex
  • Decreased energy, a feeling of fatigue or of being "slowed down"
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Sleeping too much, or can’t sleep
  • Change in appetite and/or unintended weight loss or gain
  • Chronic pain or other persistent bodily symptoms that are not caused by physical illness or injury
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

Recovery and treatment prognosis

Fortunately, much is now known about the causes and treatment of bipolar disorder. The best form of treatment involves a combination of both medication and psychotherapy, because is it known that there are biological and psychological components to every bipolar disorder. With proper treatment, there is no reason why someone with bipolar disorder can not go on to lead a normal life.