Learn about the signs, symptoms and causes of bipolar disorder.
Part of being human is to expect changes in your mood – and such changes are natural responses to things like stress or excitement, and various circumstances or events. For a sufferer of bipolar disorder, however, those mood changes will affect you for longer and in more extreme ways. Oftentimes, impulsive ideas and delusions can prompt a person to engage in damaging or risky behaviour, which can lead to financial and relationship breakdown. The mental ups and downs experienced are likely fall into two contrasting episodes: mania and depression. But what does it feel like to have bipolar disorder?
Throughout those bouts of mania sufferers might feel euphoric and on top of the world. These “up” periods can give a person energy, confidence, and often make the person see things in a new and exciting light. Sufferers become easily distracted and thoughts begin to jump from one thing to another. As the mania starts to become overwhelming, irritability and aggression can ensue, and thoughts can become muddled.
The mood state of depression has an opposite effect, causing the person to feel pessimistic and low, and to lose interest in activities once enjoyed or withdraw from social life. Depressive episodes can slow a person down, making them feel overly tired, restless or irritable. Throughout those “down” periods, sufferers may have trouble concentrating, remembering things and making decisions – and in more serious instances, have thoughts related to death or suicide
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes the person to experience unusual and sudden shifts in mood, energy and activity levels. Its symptoms are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone experiences from time to time.
Unfortunately, many bipolar spectrum disorders go unrecognised and undiagnosed, which is why its symptoms – including impulsive behaviour, substance abuse, and shifts in energy levels – can be wrongfully dismissed as problems other than bipolar disorder.
Types of bipolar disorder
Developing targeted treatments for the different types of bipolar is essential, to address episode management and patient support. A better understanding is a great first step towards getting help. Your doctor will diagnose you depending on your experience of bipolar moods and the symptoms you present.
Some common diagnoses include:
This type of bipolar disorder involves periods of severe mood episodes ranging from both mania to depression.
This type of bipolar disorder consists of a milder form of mood elevation, with less extreme episodes (called hypomania) that alternate with episodes of significant depression.
Cyclothymic disorder is diagnosed when brief periods of both hypomania and depression occur, although they aren’t as extensive or as long-lasting as the symptoms in full hypomanic or depressive episodes.
Causes of bipolar disorder
Although the exact cause isn’t entirely known, genetic and environmental factors, as well as brain chemistry do play a role in the onset and progression of bipolar disorder.
If you are vulnerable to bipolar disorder, factors like stress, life events, substance misuse, and lack of sleep may also prompt the onset of a mood episode.
Signs and symptoms
The signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder are experienced differently between patients, depending on personal circumstances and the type of condition.
It is important to understand that some people with bipolar disorder can experience a less severe form of mania, called hypomania. The manic features of hypomania aren’t severe enough to impair a person’s daily life, but they can lead you to be more sociable or productive than usual. Others will experience mixed mood states where both depressive and manic symptoms exist together.
Signs of a manic episode may include:
Feeling overly upbeat or outgoing
Being easily distracted
Feeling overly elated, happy, or euphoric
Racing thoughts or speech
Taking on too many projects or unrealistic goal setting
Feelings of invincibility
Boundless energy levels
Irritability or aggression
Increased sex drive
Impulsive or risky behaviour (spending sprees, gambling, poor investments, unsafe sex, or substance misuse)
Signs of a depressive episode may include:
Frequent crying or teariness
Fatigue or low energy
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or emptiness
Lack of motivation
Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
Forgetfulness or inability to recall memories
Changes in eating or sleeping habits
Suicidal thoughts, planning or attempts
Delusions or detachment from reality
Lack of pleasure of interest in usual activities
Decreased sex drive
Helping friends and family
Both families and sufferers can find it difficult to cope with and understand the nature of bipolar disorder. But many patients feel much better when they learn how to stop themselves in their tracks before an episode goes too far, and families can learn how to respond to mood fluctuations without being overly critical. No one "chooses" to have bipolar disorder, so educating loved ones about the genetic basis of the disorder can be extremely helpful.