Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that involves extreme shifts in mood and activity levels. It’s a complex condition but often responds well to treatment.
If you have bipolar disorder, know that you’re not alone. There’s a large community out there of people living with bipolar disorder, each with unique experiences.
In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that
Experts are researching and improving treatments for bipolar disorder all the time. With the right treatments and coping methods, people with bipolar disorder can usually manage their symptoms well and live full, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
Bipolar disorder used to be called “manic depression,” but healthcare professionals no longer use this term.
Each person has a unique experience of bipolar disorder. For some, the mood episodes last just a few hours or days. For others, they might last for weeks or months.
An event or experience can trigger a mood episode. Triggers can include stress, sleep disruption, alcohol use, and substance use.
All types of bipolar disorder respond well to treatment. Treatments aim to help you manage your symptoms. They may include medications, psychotherapy, and day-to-day coping methods.
The average age people develop bipolar disorder is 25 years old.
Bipolar disorder is often misunderstood, and there are many myths about bipolar disorder. But several advocacy and support groups exist that can help people understand and manage the condition.
There are three main types of bipolar disorder:
- Bipolar I disorder: Doctors diagnose bipolar I after at least one manic episode. Many people with bipolar I disorder experience hypomanic and depressive episodes, too.
- Bipolar II disorder: Doctors diagnose bipolar II after at least one depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode.
- Cyclothymic disorder: You may receive this diagnosis if you’ve had bipolar-like symptoms for at least 2 years but your symptoms don’t quite meet the criteria for bipolar disorder I or II.
Your doctor might also use other specifiers to help describe your symptoms. These can include:
- bipolar disorder with anxious distress
- bipolar disorder with mixed features, where you have symptoms of mania and depression at the same time
- bipolar disorder with rapid cycling, where you have four or more episodes of mania or depression in 1 year
If you think you might have bipolar disorder, consider reaching out to a healthcare professional for support and advice.
Our bipolar disorder test can help you think about your symptoms, but bear in mind that this is no substitute for talking with a mental health professional. It’s also possible to experience many of the symptoms described in the quiz from time to time without having bipolar disorder or any other mental health condition.
If you live with bipolar disorder, chances are you already know your own symptoms pretty well. Bipolar disorder symptoms differ between people, and they might differ from one mood episode to the next.
It can be helpful to keep track of your symptoms over time to identify any patterns in your mood changes. Understanding these shifts is a great first step in learning to manage them.
In the United States, mental health professionals diagnose bipolar disorder based on the symptoms outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).
Bipolar disorder is characterized by manic episodes, hypomanic episodes, and depressive episodes. You might experience one or two of these states or all three, depending on the type and severity of your condition.
During a manic episode, or mania, you might feel like you’re on top of the world. It might feel like you can do or achieve anything. On the other hand, you could feel very irritable, especially with others who don’t share your mindset at the time.
Having one episode of mania is enough for you to receive a diagnosis of bipolar I disorder.
A manic episode is a period of 1 week or longer in which you experience:
- elevated self-esteem or feelings of grandiosity
- a feeling of boundless energy
- extreme happiness, euphoria, or extreme irritation
- a need for less sleep
- fast, loud, and sometimes disorganized speech
- racing thoughts and rapidly changing ideas
- feeling very distractable
- a need to do lots of activities at once, such as taking on work projects, organizing social events, or making seemingly purposeless movements
You may also find yourself engaging in behaviors that could have harmful effects, such as overspending, harmful sexual behaviors, or high risk financial investments.
By definition, the symptoms of a manic episode are extreme enough that they get in the way of your daily life. You might do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, and people close to you can typically notice the changes.
In some situations, mania may require a trip to the hospital to keep you safe.
A hypomanic episode, or hypomania, involves similar symptoms as a manic episode. The difference is that the symptoms:
- are less severe than in a manic episode
- have less impact on your daily life
- don’t require a hospital visit
- are present for at least 4 days in a row
If you have hypomanic episodes but no manic episodes, you might get a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder.
If you’re having a depressive episode, you may be experiencing:
- a depressed mood, which might feel like extreme sadness, hopelessness, or helplessness
- a loss of pleasure in things that you typically enjoy
- feelings of worthlessness, or excessive or inappropriate guilt
- fatigue or a lack of energy
- difficulty thinking or concentrating
- weight loss or gain
- changes in appetite
- suicidal thoughts or actions
When you’re not receiving treatment, the mood episodes can be severe. During depressive episodes, you might notice you’re having thoughts about death or suicide. It’s crucial to remember that these feelings will pass and that you don’t have to go through it alone.
Bipolar disorder runs in families. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association says that 80–90% of people with bipolar disorder have a relative with either depression or bipolar disorder.
The structure of your brain and the workings of chemical messengers, such as serotonin and dopamine, likely play a role.
Bipolar disorder, like most mental health conditions, is best diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or clinical social worker.
While a family physician or general practitioner may offer a preliminary diagnosis, only a mental health specialist offers the experience and skills necessary to diagnose bipolar disorder reliably.
Even though experts aren’t yet sure about the exact causes of bipolar disorder, they’ve been able to develop a range of effective treatments that help people manage their mood episodes.
For many people, treatment involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Finding the best course of treatment for you might take some trial and error. Certain medications work better for some people than others. It can take a month or two before you start to feel the full benefits of the treatment plan.
Self-help strategies for bipolar disorder vary in their effectiveness, depending on the person and the severity of the condition. Some people find it beneficial to join a support group, read books explaining effective self-help strategies, or keep a journal.
You can journal on paper or through a mood or journaling app.
One of the biggest challenges of treating bipolar disorder is finding and maintaining a treatment routine that works best for you over the long term.
Most people with this condition take medications for much of their life, but it can be a challenge to stick with the medications when all seems well years down the road.
Commonly prescribed medications include:
Consider asking your doctor about the possible side effects of the medications you’re prescribed, as well as what may happen if you miss a few doses — are there any symptoms of withdrawal?
If you’d like to get help but are unsure where to start, the
Living with bipolar disorder presents many daily challenges. What are some of the long-term, successful strategies for staying well, sticking with treatment, and maintaining a balanced mood?
A critical aspect of living with this condition is learning to build routines and sticking with them, no matter what. If you stop following your routine, you may be more likely to have a manic or depressive episode.
If you stop taking the mood stabilizer that helps regulate your moods, it could also lead to a manic or depressive episode.
It can also help to talk with others who have had similar experiences or read about other people’s experiences online.
You might also find it helpful to try some self-help strategies as part of your comprehensive treatment plan.
You can learn more about bipolar disorder and find support with these resources:
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides more information about bipolar disorder.
- You can use the Find a Psychiatrist database from the American Psychiatric Association to find a psychiatrist in your region.
- The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance offers free online support groups and other information.
If you’re interested in seeking further help but are unsure where to start, check out our find help page.