What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
There are four basic types of bipolar disorder; all of them involve clear changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. These moods range from periods of extremely “up,” elated, and energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very sad, “down,” or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). Less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.
Types of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar I Disorder
Defined by manic episodes that last at least 7 days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks. Episodes of depression with mixed features (having depression and manic symptoms at the same time) are also possible.
Bipolar II Disorder
Defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes described above.
Cyclothymic Disorder (also called cyclothymia)
Defined by numerous periods of hypomanic symptoms as well numerous periods of depressive symptoms lasting for at least 2 years (1 year in children and adolescents). However, the symptoms do not meet the diagnostic requirements for a hypomanic episode and a depressive episode.
Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorders
Defined by bipolar disorder symptoms that do not match the three categories listed above.
Bipolar Disorder Signs and Symptoms
People with bipolar disorder experience periods of unusually intense emotion, changes in sleep patterns and activity levels, and unusual behaviors. These distinct periods are called “mood episodes.” Mood episodes are drastically different from the moods and behaviors that are typical for the person. Extreme changes in energy, activity, and sleep go along with mood episodes.
Manic Episode Signs and Symptoms
- Feel very “up,” “high,” or elated
- Have a lot of energy
- Have increased activity levels
- Feel “jumpy” or “wired”
- Have trouble sleeping
- Become more active than usual
- Talk really fast about a lot of different things
- Be agitated, irritable, or “touchy”
- Feel like their thoughts are going very fast
- Think they can do a lot of things at once
- Do risky things, like spend a lot of money or have reckless sex
Depressive Episode Signs and Symptoms
- Feel very sad, down, empty, or hopeless
- Have very little energy
- Have decreased activity levels
- Have trouble sleeping, they may sleep too little or too much
- Feel like they can’t enjoy anything
- Feel worried and empty
- Have trouble concentrating
- Forget things a lot
- Eat too much or too little
- Feel tired or “slowed down”
- Think about death or suicide
Signs and Symptoms of Episodes with Mixed Manic/Depressive Features
Sometimes a mood episode includes symptoms of both manic and depressive symptoms. This is called an episode with mixed features. People experiencing an episode with mixed features may feel very sad, empty, or hopeless, while at the same time feeling extremely energized.
Bipolar disorder can be present even when mood swings are less extreme. For example, some people with bipolar disorder experience hypomania, a less severe form of mania. During a hypomanic episode, an individual may feel very good, be highly productive, and function well. The person may not feel that anything is wrong, but family and friends may recognize the mood swings and/or changes in activity levels as possible bipolar disorder. Without proper treatment, people with hypomania may develop severe mania or depression.
Related and Co-occurring Disorders
Some bipolar disorder symptoms are similar to other illnesses, which can make it hard for a doctor to make a diagnosis. In addition, many people have bipolar disorder along with another illness such as anxiety disorder, substance abuse, or an eating disorder. People with bipolar disorder are also at higher risk for thyroid disease, migraine headaches, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other physical illnesses.
Psychosis: Sometimes, a person with severe episodes of mania or depression also has psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions. The psychotic symptoms tend to match the person’s extreme mood. For example:
- Someone having psychotic symptoms during a manic episode may believe she is famous, has a lot of money, or has special powers.
- Someone having psychotic symptoms during a depressive episode may believe he is ruined and penniless, or that he has committed a crime.
As a result, people with bipolar disorder who also have psychotic symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed with schizophrenia.
Anxiety and ADHD: Anxiety disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often diagnosed among people with bipolar disorder.
Substance Abuse: People with bipolar disorder may also misuse alcohol or drugs, have relationship problems, or perform poorly in school or at work. Family, friends and people experiencing symptoms may not recognize these problems as signs of a major mental illness such as bipolar disorder.
Bipolar Disorder Treatments and Therapies
Treatment helps many people—even those with the most severe forms of bipolar disorder—gain better control of their mood swings and other bipolar symptoms. An effective treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy (also called “talk therapy”). Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. Episodes of mania and depression typically come back over time. Between episodes, many people with bipolar disorder are free of mood changes, but some people may have lingering symptoms. Long-term, continuous treatment helps to control these symptoms.
When done in combination with medication, psychotherapy (also called “talk therapy”) can be an effective treatment for bipolar disorder. It can provide support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families. Some psychotherapy treatments used to treat bipolar disorder include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Family-focused therapy
- Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy
Visit the NIMH Psychotherapies webpage to learn about the various types of psychotherapies.
Different types of medications can help control symptoms of bipolar disorder. An individual may need to try several different medications before finding ones that work best.
Medications generally used to treat bipolar disorder include:
- Mood stabilizers
- Atypical antipsychotics
Anyone taking a medication should:
- Talk with a doctor or a pharmacist to understand the risks and benefits of the medication
- Report any concerns about side effects to a doctor right away. The doctor may need to change the dose or try a different medication.
- Avoid stopping a medication without talking to a doctor first. Suddenly stopping a medication may lead to “rebound” or worsening of bipolar disorder symptoms. Other uncomfortable or potentially dangerous withdrawal effects are also possible.
- Report serious side effects to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program online at http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch or by phone at 1-800-332-1088. Clients and doctors may send reports.
Other Treatment Options
Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT): ECT can provide relief for people with severe bipolar disorder who have not been able to recover with other treatments. Sometimes ECT is used for bipolar symptoms when other medical conditions, including pregnancy, make taking medications too risky. ECT may cause some short-term side effects, including confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. People with bipolar disorder should discuss possible benefits and risks of ECT with a qualified health professional.
Sleep Medications: People with bipolar disorder who have trouble sleeping usually find that treatment is helpful. However, if sleeplessness does not improve, a doctor may suggest a change in medications. If the problem continues, the doctor may prescribe sedatives or other sleep medications.
Supplements: Not much research has been conducted on herbal or natural supplements and how they may affect bipolar disorder.
It is important for a doctor to know about all prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and supplements a client is taking. Certain medications and supplements taken together may cause unwanted or dangerous effects.
Keeping a Life Chart: Even with proper treatment, mood changes can occur. Treatment is more effective when a client and doctor work closely together and talk openly about concerns and choices. Keeping a life chart that records daily mood symptoms, treatments, sleep patterns, and life events can help clients and doctors track and treat bipolar disorder most effectively.
- A family doctor is a good resource and can be the first stop in searching for help.
- For general information on mental health and to find local treatment services, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
- The SAMHSA website has a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator that can search for treatment information by address, city, or ZIP code.
- Visit the NIMH’s Help for Mental Illnesses webpage for more information and resources.