Bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive illness or manic depression) is a mental illness that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
There are three types of bipolar disorder. All three types involve clear changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. These moods range from periods of extremely “up,” elated, irritable, or energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very “down,” sad, indifferent, or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). Less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.
Bipolar I disorder is defined by manic episodes that last at least 7 days (most of the day, nearly every day) or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks. Episodes of depression with mixed features (having depressive symptoms and manic symptoms at the same time) are also possible. The experience of four or more episodes of mania or depression within a year is termed “rapid cycling.”
Bipolar II disorder is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but the episodes are less severe than the manic episodes in bipolar I disorder.
Cyclothymic disorder (also called cyclothymia) is defined by recurrent hypomanic and depressive symptoms that are not intense enough or do not last long enough to qualify as hypomanic or depressive episodes.
Sometimes a person might experience symptoms of bipolar disorder that do not match the three categories listed above, and this is referred to as “other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders.”
Bipolar disorder is typically diagnosed during late adolescence (teen years) or early adulthood. Occasionally, bipolar symptoms can appear in children. Although the symptoms may vary over time, bipolar disorder usually requires lifelong treatment. Following a prescribed treatment plan can help people manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Signs and Symptoms
People with bipolar disorder experience periods of unusually intense emotion, changes in sleep patterns and activity levels, and uncharacteristic behaviors—often without recognizing their likely harmful or undesirable effects. These distinct periods are called “mood episodes.” Mood episodes are very different from the moods and behaviors that are typical for the person. During an episode, the symptoms last every day for most of the day. Episodes may also last for longer periods, such as several days or weeks.
-Symptoms of a Manic Episode
-Symptoms of a Depressive Episode
-Feeling very up, high, elated, or extremely irritable or touchy
-Feeling very down or sad, or anxious
-Feeling jumpy or wired, more active than usual
-Feeling slowed down or restless
-Decreased need for sleep
-Trouble falling asleep, waking up too early, or sleeping too much
-Talking fast about a lot of different things (“flight of ideas”)
-Talking very slowly, feeling unable to find anything to say, or forgetting a lot
-Trouble concentrating or making decisions
-Feeling able to do many things at once without getting tired
-Feeling unable to do even simple things
-Excessive appetite for food, drinking, sex, or other pleasurable activities
-Lack of interest in almost all activities
-Feeling unusually important, talented, or powerful
-Feeling hopeless or worthless, or thinking about death or suicide
Sometimes people experience both manic and depressive symptoms in the same episode, and this is called an episode with mixed features. People experiencing an episode with mixed features may feel very sad, empty, or hopeless while at the same time feeling extremely energized.
A person may have bipolar disorder even if their symptoms are less extreme. For example, some people with bipolar II disorder experience hypomania, a less severe form of mania. During a hypomanic episode, a person may feel very good, be able to get things done, and keep up with day-to-day life. The person may not feel that anything is wrong, but family and friends may recognize the changes in mood or activity levels as possible bipolar disorder. Without proper treatment, people with hypomania can develop severe mania or depression.
Proper diagnosis and treatment can help people with bipolar disorder lead healthy and active lives. Talking with a doctor or other licensed health care provider is the first step. The health care provider can complete a physical exam and order necessary medical tests to rule out other conditions. The health care provider may then conduct a mental health evaluation or provide a referral to a trained mental health care provider, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker who has experience in diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder.
Mental health care providers usually diagnose bipolar disorder based on a person’s symptoms, lifetime history, experiences, and, in some cases, family history. Accurate diagnosis in youth is particularly important. You can find tips for talking with your health care provider in NIMH's Tips for Talking With a Health Care Provider About Your Mental Health fact sheet.
Bipolar Disorder and Other Conditions
Many people with bipolar disorder also have other mental disorders or conditions such as anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), misuse of drugs or alcohol, or eating disorders. Sometimes people who have severe manic or depressive episodes also have symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations or delusions. The psychotic symptoms tend to match the person’s extreme mood. For example, someone having psychotic symptoms during a depressive episode may falsely believe they are financially ruined, while someone having psychotic symptoms during a manic episode may falsely believe they are famous or have special powers.
Looking at symptoms over the course of the illness and the person’s family history can help determine whether a person has bipolar disorder along with another disorder.
Researchers are studying the possible causes of bipolar disorder. Most agree that there is no single cause and it is likely that many factors contribute to a person’s chance of having the illness.
Brain Structure and Functioning: Some studies indicate that the brains of people with bipolar disorder may differ from the brains of people who do not have bipolar disorder or any other mental disorder. Learning more about these differences may help scientists understand bipolar disorder and determine which treatments will work best. At this time, health care providers base the diagnosis and treatment plan on a person’s symptoms and history, rather than brain imaging or other diagnostic tests.
Genetics: Some research suggests that people with certain genes are more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Research also shows that people who have a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder have an increased chance of having the disorder themselves. Many genes are involved, and no one gene can cause the disorder. Learning more about how genes play a role in bipolar disorder may help researchers develop new treatments.
Treatments and Therapies
Treatment can help many people, including those with the most severe forms of bipolar disorder. An effective treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy, also called talk therapy.
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. Episodes of mania and depression typically come back over time. Between episodes, many people with bipolar disorder are free of mood changes, but some people may have lingering symptoms. Long-term, continuous treatment can help people manage these symptoms.
Certain medications can help manage symptoms of bipolar disorder. Some people may need to try several different medications and work with their health care provider before finding medications that work best.
The most common types of medications that doctors prescribe include mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotics. Mood stabilizers such as lithium or valproate can help prevent mood episodes or reduce their severity. Lithium also can decrease the risk of suicide. Medications that target sleep or anxiety are sometimes added to mood stabilizers as part of a treatment plan.
While bipolar depression is often treated with antidepressant medication, a mood stabilizer must be taken as well, as an antidepressant alone can trigger a manic episode or rapid cycling in a person with bipolar disorder. Because people with bipolar disorder are more likely to seek help when they are depressed than when they are experiencing mania or hypomania, taking a careful medical history is essential to ensure that bipolar disorder is not mistaken for depression.
People taking medication should:
Talk with their health care provider to understand the risks and benefits of the medication.
Tell their health care provider about any prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or supplements they are already taking.
Report any concerns about side effects to a health care provider right away. The health care provider may need to change the dose or try a different medication.
Remember that medication for bipolar disorder must be taken consistently, as prescribed, even when one is feeling well.
Avoid stopping a medication without talking to a health care provider first. Suddenly stopping a medication may lead to a “rebound” or worsening of bipolar disorder symptoms. For basic information about medications, visit NIMH's Mental Health Medications webpage. Read the latest medication warnings, patient medication guides, and information on newly approved medications on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can be an effective part of the treatment plan for people with bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy is a term for a variety of treatment techniques that aim to help a person identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. It can provide support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an important treatment for depression, and CBT adapted for the treatment of insomnia can be especially helpful as a component of the treatment of bipolar depression.
Treatment may also include newer therapies designed specifically for the treatment of bipolar disorder, including interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) and family-focused therapy. Determining whether intensive psychotherapeutic intervention at the earliest stages of bipolar disorder can prevent or limit its full-blown onset is an important area of ongoing research.
Visit NIMH's Psychotherapies webpage to learn about the various types of psychotherapies.
Other Treatment Options
Some people may find other treatments helpful in managing their bipolar symptoms, including:
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a brain stimulation procedure that can help relieve severe symptoms of bipolar disorder. ECT is usually only considered if an individual’s illness has not improved after other treatments such as medication or psychotherapy, or in cases that require rapid response, such as with suicide risk or catatonia (a state of unresponsiveness).
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a type of brain stimulation that uses magnetic waves, rather than the electrical stimulus of ECT, to relieve depression over a series of treatment sessions. Although not as powerful as ECT, TMS does not require general anesthesia and presents little risk of memory or adverse cognitive effects.
Light therapy is the best evidence-based treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and many people with bipolar disorder experience seasonal worsening of depression in the winter, in some cases to the point of SAD. Light therapy could also be considered for lesser forms of seasonal worsening of bipolar depression.
Unlike specific psychotherapy and medication treatments that are scientifically proven to improve bipolar disorder symptoms, complementary health approaches for bipolar disorder, such as natural products, are not based on current knowledge or evidence. For more information, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website.
A family health care provider or doctor is a good resource and can be the first stop in searching for help. For tips for talking with your health care provider, see NIMH’s Tips for Talking With a Health Care Provider About Your Mental Health fact sheet.
For general information on mental health and to find local treatment services, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
The SAMHSA website has a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator that can search for treatment information by address, city, or ZIP code.
Visit NIMH’s Help for Mental Illnesses webpage for more information and resources.
Coping with Bipolar Disorder
Living with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but there are ways to help make it easier for yourself, a friend, or a loved one.
Get treatment and stick with it. Treatment is the best way to start feeling better.
Keep medical and therapy appointments and talk with your health care provider about treatment options.
Take medication as directed.
Structure activities. Keep a routine for eating, sleeping, and exercising.
Try regular, vigorous exercise like jogging, swimming, or bicycling, which can help with depression and anxiety, promote better sleep, and is healthy for your heart and brain.
Keep a life chart to help recognize your mood swings.
Ask for help when trying to stick with your treatment.
Be patient. Improvement takes time. Social support helps.
Remember, bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness, but long-term, ongoing treatment can help control symptoms and enable you to live a healthy life.
Source: National Institute of Mental Health