Manic depression; Bipolar affective disorder; Mood disorder - bipolar; Manic depressive disorder
Bipolar disorder is a mental condition in which a person has wide or extreme swings in their mood. Periods of feeling sad and depressed may alternate with periods of intense excitement and activity or being cross or irritable.
Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally. It most often starts between ages 15 and 25. The exact cause is not known, but it occurs more often in relatives of people with bipolar disorder.
In most people with bipolar disorder, there is no clear cause for the periods (episodes) of extreme happiness and high activity or energy (mania) or depression and low activity or energy (depression). The following may trigger a manic episode:
- Medicines, such as antidepressants or steroids
- Periods of not being able to sleep (insomnia)
- Recreational drug use
If you, or a person close to you, have frequent episodes of extreme mood swings, going between periods of mania, or an exaggerated elevated good mood, to quickly experiencing a lowering or depressed mood often without reason, you may have bipolar disorder. Let's talk about this condition, and how it can be managed. As just stated, Bipolar disorder is a brain condition that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, and ability to carry out daily tasks. Symptoms can be severe, lasting from days to months. Someone with bipolar disorder may be easily distracted, have little need for sleep, exercise poor judgment and temper control, and exhibit reckless behavior and a lack of self control. They may have very elevated moods, be very involved in their activities, and may occasionally seem very agitated or irritated. On the flip side, depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder may include daily sadness, a difficulty concentrating, eating problems, a lack of energy, feeling worthless, and thoughts of death or suicide. People with bipolar disorder have a higher risk of suicide than people without this condition. They also may abuse alcohol or other substances, which usually only make their symptoms worse. So, how is bipolar disorder treated? The main goals of treatment are to help the person avoid moving from one phase to another, avoid the need to stay in a hospital or treatment center, to help the patient function as well as possible between episodes, to prevent self-injury and suicide, and make bipolar episodes less frequent and less severe. Keep in mind periods of depression or mania often return in someone with bipolar disorder, even when they are treated. Drugs, called mood stabilizers, are usually the first line of treatment. Often accompanied by psychotherapy and psychoeducation. A person with bipolar disorder may need stronger medicines as well, such as anti-psychotic or anti-seizure drugs. Anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants to treat depression, are problematic because they can increase the likelihood of a manic episode even when people also take a mood stabilizer. Some patients may have a procedure called electroconvulsive therapy, in which a small amount of electrical current will be delivered to their heads to cause seizure activity in the brain to treat either depression or mania. Evidence to support this treatment exists, but it limited. Support programs for people with bipolar disorder are important. Family programs that combine support and education about bipolar disorder may help families cope and reduce the odds of symptoms returning. Programs that offer outreach and community support services can help people who do not have family and social support. It is also important for people with bipolar disorder to learn to cope with their symptoms, get enough sleep, live a healthy lifestyle, avoid recreational drugs, and take their medications correctly, and learn to watch for the early signs of return symptoms, having a plan of action to know what to do if and when they do return. Also, keep in mind, support is very important in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Family members can help the patient find the right support services and make sure the patient takes their medication correctly.
The manic phase may last from days to months. It may include these symptoms:
- Easily distracted
- Excess involvement in activities
- Little need for sleep
- Poor judgment
- Poor temper control
- Lack of self-control and reckless behavior, such as drinking or using drugs in excess, having increased and risky sex, gambling, and spending or giving away a lot of money
- Very irritable mood, racing thoughts, talking a lot, and false beliefs about self or abilities
- Rapid speech
- Concerns about things that are not true (delusions)
The depressive episode may include these symptoms:
- Daily low mood or sadness
- Problems concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Eating problems such as loss of appetite and weight loss or overeating and weight gain
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt
- Loss of pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Loss of self-esteem
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Trouble getting to sleep or sleeping too much
- Pulling away from friends or activities that were once enjoyed
Episodes of depression are more common than episodes of mania. The pattern is not the same in all people with bipolar disorder:
- Depression and mania symptoms may occur together. This is called a mixed state.
- Symptoms may also occur right after each other. This is called rapid cycling.
Exams and Tests
To diagnose bipolar disorder, the health care provider may do some or all of the following:
- Ask whether other family members have bipolar disorder
- Ask about your recent mood swings and for how long you have had them
- Perform a thorough exam and order lab tests to look for other illnesses that may be causing symptoms that resemble bipolar disorder
- Talk to family members about your symptoms and overall health
- Ask about any health problems you have and any medicines you take
- Watch your behavior and mood
The main goal of treatment is to:
- Make the episodes less frequent and severe
- Help you function well and enjoy your life at home and at work
- Prevent self-injury and suicide
Medicines are a key part of treating bipolar disorder. Most often, the first medicines used are called mood stabilizers. They help you avoid mood swings and extreme changes in activity and energy levels.
With medicines, you may begin to feel better. However, for some people, symptoms of mania may feel good. Some people have side effects from the medicines. As a result, you may be tempted to stop taking your medicines or change the way you are taking them. But stopping your medicines or taking them in the wrong way can cause symptoms to come back or become much worse. Do not stop taking or change the dosages of your medicines. Talk with your provider if you have questions about your medicines.
Ask family members or friends to help you take medicines the right way. This means taking the right dose at the right time. They can also help make sure that episodes of mania and depression are treated as soon as possible.
If mood stabilizers do not help, your provider may suggest other medicines, such as antipsychotics or antidepressants.
You will need regular visits with a psychiatrist to talk about your medicines and their possible side effects. Blood tests are often needed, too.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be used to treat the manic or depressive phase if it does not respond to medicine.
People who are in the middle of a severe manic or depressive episode may need to stay in a hospital until they are stable and their behavior is under control.
SUPPORT PROGRAMS AND TALK THERAPY
Joining a support group may help you and your loved ones. Involving family members and caregivers in your treatment may help reduce the chance of symptoms returning.
Important skills you may learn at such programs include how to:
- Cope with symptoms that continue even while you are taking medicines
- Get enough sleep and stay away from recreational drugs
- Take medicines the right way and manage side effects
- Watch for the return of symptoms, and know what to do when they return
- Find out what triggers the episodes and avoid these triggers
Talk therapy with a mental health provider may be helpful for people with bipolar disorder.
Periods of depression or mania return in most people, even with treatment. People may also have issues with alcohol or drug use. They may also have problems with relationships, school, work, and finances.
Suicide is a very real risk during both mania and depression. People with bipolar disorder who think or talk about suicide need emergency attention right away.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Seek help right way if you:
- Have symptoms of mania
- Feel the urge to hurt yourself or others
- Feel hopeless, scared, or overwhelmed
- See things that are not really there
- Feel you cannot leave the house
- Are not able to care for yourself
Call the treating provider if:
- Symptoms are getting worse
- You have side effects from medicines
- You are not taking medicine the right way
American Psychiatric Association. Bipolar and related disorders. In: American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013:123-154.
McIntyre RS, Berk M, Brietzke E, et al. Bipolar disorders. Lancet. 2020;396(10265):1841-1856. PMID: 33278937
Perlis RH, Ostacher MJ. Bipolar disorder. In: Stern TA, Fava M, Wilens TE, Rosenbaum JF, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 30.
Last reviewed on: 6/5/2022
Reviewed by: Fred K. Berger, MD, addiction and forensic psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.