Bipolar Disorder

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a mental illness which causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood. The illness is often characterized by excessive mood swings from great highs to great lows. Although a cure has not been found for bipolar disorder, symptom control and recovery are possible with a combination of medication and therapy.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

Research supports that bipolar disorder is likely caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain which alters a person’s mood. The imbalance is thought to be caused by irregular hormone production or a problem with certain chemicals in the brain that act as messengers to nerve cells.

Research has found that bipolar disorder is triggered by both hereditary and environmental factors. Studies show that the illness is not caused by a single gene, but by different genes acting together in combination. In addition, 80 to 90 percent of those who suffer from bipolar disorder have relatives with some form of depression. Environmental factors, such as distressing life events, can also trigger the illness in someone who has a genetic tendency to develop the illness.

What are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is characterized by shifts in a person’s mood, often from dramatic highs (mania) to dramatic lows (depression). The symptoms of each end of the spectrum are very different.

Symptoms of Mania (or a manic episode) include:
• Increased energy, activity and restlessness
• Excessively “high,” overly good, euphoric mood
• Extreme irritability
• Racing thoughts and accelerated speech, 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 behavior that is different than usual
• Increased sexual drive
• Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol and sleeping medications
• Provocative, intrusive or aggressive behavior
• Denial that anything is wrong
It is often difficult to diagnose bipolar disorder during a manic episode. Many of these symptoms feel good to the person, which may lead to denial that there is a problem. However, these feelings often fade and the person becomes more depressed.

Symptoms of Depression (or a depressive episode):
• 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
• Sleep disturbance (either too much or not enough)
• 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

What are the Treatments for Bipolar Disorder?

The majority of people with bipolar disorder can be treated with a combination of medication and therapy that allows them to return to normal, fulfilling lives. Treatment controls the various symptoms, so that the individual can carry out more normal daily activities.

Most commonly, bipolar disorder is treated continuously with “mood stabilizing” medications. Lithium was the first mood-stabilizing medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of mania and is often very effective in controlling mania and preventing the recurrence of both manic and depressive episodes. In recent years, other medications, such as Zyprexa (olanzapine), Tegretol (carbomazepine) and Depakote (divalproex) have been introduced.

Psychosocial treatments, including certain forms of therapy, have been found helpful in providing support, education and guidance to people with bipolar disorder. Therapy can help those with bipolar disorder learn to change inappropriate or negative thought patterns. It can teach them and their families about the illness and treatment. Family therapy can reduce the level of distress within a family that is affected by the illness.

It is important to note that anyone who is thinking about committing suicide needs immediate attention, preferably from a mental health professional or physician. Anyone who talks about suicide should be taken seriously.

How Common is Bipolar Disorder?

More than 2 million American adults or about 1 percent of the population age 18 and older have bipolar disorder. The disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood.

Additional Resources:

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

Pendulum Resources

Child and Adolescent Bipolar Foundation

Recovery Network of Northern Kentucky

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill

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