What is Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar is a mental health condition which has an impact on your mood, and can cause your mood to swing between two extremes. In the past, it was referred to as “manic depression”. This was the phrase used to describe it right up until 1980, at which point the American Psychiatric Association (APA) decided to reflect the condition’s “bi-polarity”, or dual nature, by renaming it “bipolar disorder”.

Some believe the original name describes the condition’s manic highs and depressive lows more accurately, while others suggest that “multi-polar disorder” would be a better name as it highlights that the condition involves more than two moods.

Some people find the use of labels when describing someone’s life experiences, mental and physical health challenges and personality to be unhelpful as it can lead people to forget that each of these factors is unique to the person experiencing them.

Symptoms range broadly from very mild to very severe, which is why it’s important that you find the treatment that’s right for you. “Bipolar disorder” is the name that has been settled on for now, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more or less accurate than the other options. It’s simply necessary to have a name that will allow doctors and patients to discuss the condition in question without confusion.

The impact that bipolar disorder can have on someone’s life is as individual as the person themselves, which is why some experts have started referring to bipolar as a “spectrum disorder”.

Bipolar disorder causes people to have depressive and manic episodes:

  • Manic: Becoming overactive and erratic. (A milder manic period will be referred to as a “hypomanic episode”.)
  • Depressive: Feeling very lethargic and unhappy.

The mood you’re experiencing will determine the symptoms you have. People with bipolar disorder can find themselves swinging between feeling tired, unmotivated and sad, and feeling incredibly confident, enthusiastic and animated.

To a certain extent, everyone experiences mood swings in some form or another. The human experience involves feeling a wide variety of emotions and moods. We can be enthusiastic and happy about our lives one day, and inconsolably miserable the next.

For some, however, these mood swings are far more severe and can have devastating effects on their day-to-day lives. Some people with bipolar disorder may very rarely experience a “normal” mood. Bipolar is different from simple mood swings, in that its episodes can last for a number of weeks, or even longer.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

No matter which type of bipolar disorder you are diagnosed with, you will experience clear changes in energy, motivation and mood. Bipolar disorder tends to be split into four basic types.

  • Bipolar I Disorder is defined by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care, or by manic periods lasting a week or more. Depressive episodes also generally occur, usually lasting for two weeks or more. It’s also possible for the individual to have episodes of depression with “mixed features”, meaning they’ll have manic and depressive symptoms at the same time.
  • Cyclothymia (also known as Cyclothymic Disorder) is defined by numerous periods of depressive symptoms and numerous periods of hypomanic symptoms lasting for one year in children and teenagers, or at least two years in adults. The symptoms experienced in these periods, however, will not meet the requirements for depressive and hypomanic episodes.
  • Bipolar II Disorder – defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes of Bipolar I Disorder.
  • Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorders is defined by symptoms of bipolar disorder that do not match the other 3 categories.

Hypomania and Mania

Although they share the same symptoms, mania and hypomania are two distinct types of episode. Relationship difficulties as well as noticeable issues at school, social events and work can become a problem during manic episodes, which are more severe than hypomanic episodes. Hospitalisation may also be necessary during a manic episode, as it may trigger psychosis (a break from reality).

Three or more of these symptoms are required for something to be classed as a manic or hypomanic episode:

  • Feeling unusually wired, energetic or jumpy.
  • Euphoria (an exaggerated sense of self-confidence and happiness).
  • Talking more than usual.
  • Becoming easily distracted.
  • Poor decision-making – e.g. taking sexual risks, making foolish investments, or buying a lot of things you don’t need.
  • Racing thoughts.
  • Decreased need for sleep.
  • Increased activity, energy or agitation.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

The causes of bipolar disorder are not yet fully understood. Doctors in recent years have been working to gain a greater understanding of the bipolar spectrum – the manic highs, depressive lows and other mood states in between.

There does appear to be a genetic part to this mood disorder, as bipolar disorder often appears to run in families. The disorder’s severity, according to growing evidence, can also be affected by lifestyle and environmental factors. It appears that bipolar disorder can be more difficult to treat following stressful life events, or drug and alcohol abuse.

What Rights Do You Have as a Patient?

Your treatment and care should take into account your personal needs and preferences, and you have the right to be fully informed and to make decisions in partnership with your healthcare team. To help with this, your healthcare team should give you information you can understand and that is relevant to your circumstances. All healthcare professionals should treat you with respect, sensitivity and understanding and explain bipolar disorder and the treatments for it simply and clearly.

– NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) For more information about bipolar disorder, check out Need2Know’s Essential Guide to Bipolar Disorder, which will explain the causes of bipolar disorder, its symptoms and effects, how a diagnosis is made and how it’s possible to lead a happy and fulfilling life by managing the condition with the correct treatments. 

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