Understanding Bipolar Disorder
Life is filled with ups and downs, especially during times of transition—and in this current moment we’re all living in. One moment, it might feel like your whole world’s falling apart. The next, you’re just happy to be alive.
With usual highs and lows, you can ride the wave and move on, often faster than you think. But when mood swings feel extremely distressing, seriously impair your daily life, or last a long time, they could be a sign of bipolar disorder.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a highly treatable mental health condition you can manage with professional support. Previously known as manic-depressive illness or manic depression, it’s a type of mood disorder that causes severe mood swings.
When you have bipolar disorder, your moods may cycle between mania (feeling really high, energetic, or irritable, usually for a few days) or hypomania (less severe symptoms of mania) and depression (feeling very low and withdrawn, usually for more days than you experience the higher moods).
Although bipolar disorder is often diagnosed in young adults, about 3% of teens have bipolar disorder, and 9 in 10 say their symptoms affect their everyday lives. That’s why it’s important to get help if you believe you or someone you care about might be living with bipolar disorder.
What’s the Difference Between Bipolar I and Bipolar II?
Two of the most common types of bipolar disorder are bipolar I disorder and bipolar II disorder.
- Bipolar I disorder is diagnosed when you’ve had one manic episode, with or without a depressive episode.
- Bipolar II disorder is diagnosed when you’ve had at least one hypomanic episode and one depressive episode.
Manic, hypomanic, and depressive episodes can happen on rare occasions or multiple times a year. You can also have stretches of time when your mood is stable.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?
The main things to look out for are extreme mood swings and sudden changes in your sleeping habits.
Manic episodes last at least one week. When people are in a manic state, they can feel like they’re on top of the world, but other people in their lives may worry that they’re not themselves. Because manic episodes can make it more likely that people can put themselves in danger, they often need to be treated in the hospital.
Signs of a manic episode include:
- An extremely high mood
- Sleeping much less than usual and still having a lot of energy
- Getting really irritated or agitated more easily than usual
- Trouble thinking, focusing, or sitting still
- Talking really fast
- Feeling thrilled about unrealistic or out-of-character plans or big ideas that are typically not on your to-do list or would take much more time to plan and execute
- Working on multiple projects at once in a frenzied haze
- Struggling to make good decisions or think clearly
- Doing increasingly risky things like getting into fights, having a lot of unprotected sex, drinking, using drugs, going on shopping sprees, or driving recklessly
- Seeing or hearing things that are not there (hallucinations)
- Believing things that aren’t true (delusions)
Hypomanic episodes are less severe than manic episodes and last for a shorter period of time (up to four days).
Depressive episodes tend to happen more often than manic and hypomanic episodes and last for more than two weeks.
Signs of a depressive episode include:
- Feeling sad, empty, hopeless, or really down on yourself
- Having really low energy
- Struggling to concentrate or make decisions
- Not feeling interested in most things you usually enjoy
- Pulling away from the people you love
- Changes in sleep and appetite
- Crying spells
- Not caring about how you look or not taking care of yourself
- Thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide
When you have bipolar disorder, your depression can dip really, really low and can put you at a higher risk of suicide compared to people with no mental health condition, particularly when you’re not getting treatment.
Learn more about bipolar disorder and suicide risk here
You may also experience mixed or rapid cycling episodes, where you have a combination of manic, hypomanic, and depressive symptoms.
It’s important to know that you do not need to have all these symptoms to have bipolar disorder or seek help. Bipolar disorder can look different for different people, especially as a young adult. If you think you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, you can talk to your doctor for clarification.
What Causes Bipolar Disorder?
We don’t know exactly what causes bipolar disorder, but researchers believe a combination of genetics and stress are likely at play. Risk factors include:
- Family history, like having a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, with bipolar disorder
- Experiencing highly stressful events or trauma, such as the death of a loved one
- Changes in the brain or head trauma, like a concussion or traumatic brain injury
- Problems with drugs or alcohol
With Help, You Can Find Balance Again
Bipolar disorder is like any other medical condition that needs a doctor’s attention: The earlier you seek help, the more likely it is that you will improve, find effective ways to manage it, and thrive.
But left untreated, manic or depressive episodes can get worse, so it’s important to take signs of bipolar disorder very seriously. Learn how to reach out for help for yourself or what to do if you’re concerned about a friend.
If you or a person you know may have bipolar disorder and talks about suicide, has thoughts about self-harm, or is acting in a manner that’s dangerous, it’s extremely important to seek help immediately:
- Text “HOME” to 741741 (Crisis Text Line) for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
- Text or call 988, or use the chat function at 988Lifeline.org.
- If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.