What Is Bipolar Disorder

What is Bipolar Disorder?

by Teresa Scibilia

            Also known as manic-depressive illness, Bipolar Disorder is a brain disorder that causes shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor performance in school or work, and even self-harm. However, with treatment individuals learning to cope with this illness can live meaningful, productive lives.

            While scientists continue to study the cause of bipolar disorder, many agree that there is no single cause, but rather many factors acting together that results in the illness. Bipolar disorder runs in families, for research suggests that people with certain genes are more likely to develop the illness. While it is typically diagnosed in a person’s late teen or early adult years, bipolar disorder symptoms can occur as early as childhood.

            People suffering from this illness experience unusual intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called mood episodes. An extreme joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, while an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode. Sometimes, episodes are characterized as a mixed state, in which the individual experiences symptoms synonymous with both mania and depression. People in a mixrd state may feel very sad, yet extremely energized. Hallucinations or delusions are psychotic symptoms that occur in some cases with a person with severe episodes of mania or depression.

The National Institute of Mental Health distinguished four basic types of bipolar disorder:

  1. Bipolar I Disorder—defined by manic or mixed episodes that last at least seven days, 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.
  2. Bipolar II Disorder—defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but no full-blown manic or mixed episodes.
  3. Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (BP-NOS)—diagnosed when symptoms of the illness exist but do not meet diagnostic criteria for either bipolar I or II. However, the symptoms are clearly out of the person's normal range of behavior.
  4. Cyclothymic Disorder, or Cyclothymia—a mild form of bipolar disorder. People with cyclothymia have episodes of hypomania as well as mild depression for at least 2 years. However, the symptoms do not meet the diagnostic requirements for any other type of bipolar disorder.

If left undiagnosed and untreated, bipolar disorder can worsen as episodes become more frequent and more severe. However, proper treatment and self care can result in less episodes and the ability to lead healthy productive lives. Mood stabilizers, atypical antipsychotics, and antidepressants are the types of medications generally used to treat bipolar disorder.  

Whether the individual experiencing any sort of emotional or behavioral problems is you or a loved one, the first step is receiving a diagnoses and treatment plan from a medical professional.