We’ve all been the victim of mood swings. We start the day feeling great, but circumstances or current events bring our good mood crashing down into something close to depression. It happens. For more than 5.8 million American adults, dramatic mood swings are symptoms of bipolar disorder.
This mental health condition was once called manic depression. It’s characterized by extreme mood swings that can take individuals from intense bursts of creativity and activity — called mania — into sadness and depression that can be crippling. Each episode can last for days. It is a lifelong condition that can be managed with medication and psychotherapy, but it requires constant vigilance to maintain control over these dramatic shifts in mood.
It Takes Several Shapes
Each form of bipolar disorder is marked by unpredictable changes in mood and behavior that can be distressing to family and friends, and disruptive to everyday living. The behavior ranges from mania or hypomania (less extreme) to depression. Almost 83% of those with bipolar disorder describe it as a “severe” impairment.
- Bipolar I disorder — Symptoms include having at least one manic episode that comes before or is followed by hypomanic or depressive episodes. The mania can sometimes trigger a psychotic episode that detaches the person from reality.
- Bipolar II disorder — Symptoms include at least one major depressive episode and one hypomanic episode. People with bipolar II disorder have never had a manic episode.
- Cyclothymic disorder — Symptoms include multiple periods of hypomania and multiple periods of depressive symptoms. The depressive symptoms are less severe than major depression. These have occurred for at least two years in adults or one year in children and teenagers.
The Cause Is Unknown
Bipolar and related disorders can be triggered by remarkable levels of stress, or the use of certain drugs or alcohol. They can also be the result of a medical condition like a stroke, multiple sclerosis, or Cushing’s disease.
Yet the specific cause remains unknown. Researchers believe a number of factors — biological, environmental, psychological — play a role. Bipolar disorder typically runs in families. It’s most common when a parent or sibling has the disorder. Researchers have yet to identify the responsible gene.
It Affects Everyone
In the spring of 2020, actress, singer, and producer Selena Gomez revealed she has bipolar disorder on an Instagram show with Miley Cyrus. Gomez is just one of hundreds of celebrities, performers, artists, and athletes who have spoken publicly about their condition.
The late actress Carrie Fisher — Princess Leia from “Star Wars” — wrote candidly about her battles with bipolar disorder in her memoir, “Wishful Drinking.” “Black-ish” star Jennifer Lewis also wrote about bipolar disorder in her 2017 book, “The Mother of Black Hollywood.”
Other celebrities include Mariah Carey, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Francis Ford-Coppola, and Demi Lovato...it was even believed artist Frida Kahlo may have had bipolar disorder, too.
Treatment Can Help Patients Live a More Normal Life
The worst parts of bipolar disorder happen when it’s not treated. It can be disruptive enough to cause financial, legal, or relationship trouble, depending on the behavior during episodes. Unfortunately, people can go years without receiving a proper diagnosis because symptoms resemble so many other mental health conditions. The stigma around discussing mental health also prevents people from seeking treatment.
Receiving a proper diagnosis requires a psychiatric examination and a thorough medical history. Some doctors will also ask patients to keep a “mood chart” to help track episodes.
Successful treatment of bipolar disorder often requires a combination of approaches that include:
- Medications — These can balance a patient’s moods. They can take several weeks to take effect so it’s important to keep taking it. Finding the right medicine can also involve some trial and error. Patients must ALWAYS take their medication, even when feeling better. Skipping treatment or stopping it altogether can be dangerous and result in major manic or depressive episodes.
- Psychotherapy — This can help patients to develop healthier views about themselves and their environment. It can also assist in improving relationships and helps with the identification of stressors and coping mechanisms to deal with them.
- Substance abuse treatment — Having a dependency problem makes managing bipolar disorder harder.
- Hospitalization — Dangerous behavior, suicidal thoughts, or psychotic episodes can require a trip to the hospital to help stabilize a patient’s mood.
- Self-care — Bipolar disorder can be incredibly disruptive until it’s under control. Eating nutritious foods, limited caffeine and sugar, and getting plenty of exercise won’t cure the disorder but staying healthy will enhance the ability to cope with the side effects of the medications. Those can include nausea, fatigue, and weight gain.