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Understanding bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition of extremes marked by dramatic shifts in periods of elation and depression. Around six million adults in America are affected by it in some way.

The average age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25 years according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which is the leading federal agency for research on mental disorders. However, it is an illness that can start in early childhood or when someone is in their 40s or 50s.

About the same number of men and women develop bipolar disorder. It affects all races, social classes and ethnic groups.

Until recently it was known as manic depression, but this is now considered to have negative connotations. So most commonly it is known as bipolar disorder or bipolar affective disorder, and someone with the condition can be referred to as having bipolar disorder or simply as bipolar.

This condition’s extreme nature means living a normal life can seem impossible. So such as having a stable and healthy relationship or keeping a job can be negatively affected to a severe degree.

Highs and lows

Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of unusually elevated mood known as mania. These are episodes of extreme excitement or euphoria, excessive energy, delusions and overactivity.

But the majority of bipolar disorder sufferers also have episodes of deep depression. They can experience feelings of pessimism, emptiness and irritability most of the time during these episodes. 

The person with bipolar disorder will struggle to concentrate on anything, have memory issues, find sleeping difficult, be lethargic and sometimes have suicidal thoughts. In fact, a stark figure to know is that someone with bipolar disorder is 15 times more likely to attempt suicide than in the general population.

Episodes of depression and mania can last for several weeks or even months. Usually, someone with bipolar disorder will have episodes of mania more often than episodes of depression, or vice versa.

They can sometimes come together too – known as a “mixed state” – where a person with bipolar disorder has episodes of depression and mania together. For instance, they could be overactive but in a depressed state.

Between episodes, there can be a “normal” mood. If the mood swings last a long time but are not severe enough for bipolar disorder, someone can be diagnosed with cyclothymia, which is a mild form of bipolar disorder.

What are the major signs of bipolar?

Major signs of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is divided into bipolar 1 and bipolar 2. According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), bipolar 1 involves episodes of severe mania and frequently depression too.

Bipolar 2 has a less severe and intense form of mania that’s called hypomania. Also, people with bipolar 2 will have one or more major depressive episodes, whereas with bipolar 1 a major depressive episode – one or more – most often occurs, but is not actually required for the diagnosis. 

Overall, major bipolar disorder symptoms include:

During an episode of mania:

  • Feeling extremely elated.
  • Agitated and irritated easily.
  • Feelings of self-importance.
  • Will be full of what they consider important new projects and ideas.
  • Making harmful and risky choices.
  • Not eating anything for long periods.
  • Increased sexual desire.
  • Doing irrational things.
  • Not wanting to sleep.
  • Feeling energetic. 
  • Distracted easily.
  • Rapid talking.
  • Being delusional.

During an episode of depression:

  • Feeling irritable most of the time.
  • Lacking any energy.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Feeling pessimistic about life.
  • Suicidal thoughts and risk of suicide.
  • Losing interest in daily activities.
  • Feeling extremely sad and hopeless.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Concentration issues.
  • Memory problems.
  • Guilty feelings.
  • Displaying psychotic behavior.

In common with lots of mental health conditions, bipolar disorder is still associated with a stigma in society. This can make coping with the condition harder.

It also makes seeking help more difficult. But anyone who is suffering from this condition or who thinks they might be needs to seek help as swiftly as possible.

Thankfully, there are proven successful methods for managing and treating bipolar disorder. These include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as we offer here at Tikvah Lake. CBT addresses problematic patterns of thinking and/or behavior.

Our experienced team has helped people who’ve been diagnosed with all the major mental health conditions. Contact us to hear how we can help you or someone you love – starting today.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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