Man with bipolar disorder indoors.
Behavioral Health

What to Know about Bipolar Disorder

We all experience mood swings. Sometimes, a day will start great only to be derailed by personal circumstances or current events. However, for over 5.8 million American adults, these shifts are more than just ordinary ups and downs; they are symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Formerly known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings that can propel individuals from moments of intense creativity and activity, known as mania, into episodes of severe sadness and depression. These mood shifts can last for days and are a lifelong condition that demands ongoing management through medication and psychotherapy.

Close up of anxious patient's hands.

Diverse Forms of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder manifests in various forms, each marked by unpredictable mood and behavior changes that can be challenging for the affected individual and their loved ones:

  • Bipolar I Disorder — This form includes at least one manic episode that precedes or follows hypomanic (milder mania) or depressive episodes. Mania in bipolar I can sometimes lead to psychotic episodes, causing detachment from reality.
  • Bipolar II Disorder — Marked by at least one major depressive episode and one hypomanic episode, bipolar II disorder lacks manic episodes.
  • Cyclothymic Disorder — This condition involves multiple periods of hypomania and depressive symptoms. The depressive symptoms are less severe than in major depression and must persist for at least two years in adults or one year in children and teenagers.

Uncovering the Root Cause

While bipolar and related disorders can be triggered by significant stress levels or substance abuse, they can also result from medical conditions such as strokes, multiple sclerosis, or Cushing's disease. However, the specific cause remains a mystery. Researchers suggest that a combination of factors — biological, environmental, and psychological — contribute. Bipolar disorder often runs in families, being most prevalent when a parent or sibling has the condition. Yet, the responsible gene remains unidentified.

Researchers in the United Kingdom are getting closer, however. Scientists from the University of Cambridgehave developed a blood test that when used with an online psychiatric assessment can help diagnose patients with bipolar disorder. Many of those patients had been misdiagnosed previously with major depressive disorder. 

Happy woman outdoors.

Treatment: The Path to a Balanced Life

Untreated bipolar disorder can lead to disruptions in various aspects of life, including financial, legal, or social, or romantic, depending on behavior during episodes. Unfortunately, misdiagnosis or a lack of diagnosis is common, given the resemblance of bipolar disorder symptoms to other mental health conditions. The persistent stigma around discussing mental health further keeps people from seeking help.

Diagnosis requires a psychiatric examination and a comprehensive medical history review. Some doctors may request patients to maintain a "mood chart" to track episodes effectively.

Successful management of bipolar disorder often involves a combination of approaches:

  • Medications — These can help stabilize mood, but they may take several weeks to be effective. Consistent medication intake is crucial, even when feeling better, as skipping treatment can lead to dangerous manic or depressive episodes.
  • Psychotherapy — Therapy aids in developing healthier self-perceptions and coping mechanisms for stressors, ultimately improving relationships, and reducing the impact of bipolar disorder.
  • Substance Abuse Treatment — When bipolar disorder co-occurs with substance dependency, managing the condition becomes more challenging, requiring targeted treatment.
  • Hospitalization — Episodes involving dangerous behavior, suicidal thoughts, or psychosis may require hospitalization to stabilize mood.
  • Self-care — While it won't cure the disorder, self-care, including a nutritious diet, limiting caffeine and sugar intake, and regular exercise, can enhance one's ability to cope with medication side effects like nausea, fatigue, and weight gain.

If you or a loved one recognizes these symptoms, know that AltaMed Behavioral Health Services is here to help. Call (855) 425-1777 to learn more about overcoming the challenges posed by bipolar disorder.

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What to Know about Bipolar Disorder