What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a type of mental illness that causes drastic changes in a person’s mood, energy levels, train of thought, and overall ability to function in their day-to-day life. It is marked by manic periods where an individual is extremely energized and perceivably happy, along with episodes of intense sadness and depression.

It is also known as bipolar disease or manic depression. Like other mental health conditions, bipolar disorder impacts an individual’s ability to manage simple everyday tasks, such as attending work, school, or even maintaining social connections. 

Bipolar disorder with swings from mania to depression

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What Is Bipolar Disorder?

In life, we all experience a range of emotions, including joy, sadness, anger, and fear, but tend to do it in response to a pertinent life event. When a person experiences significant highs and lows in terms of their emotions on a very consistent basis, they may be suffering from something more serious, such as bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is much more common than most people think. In fact, an estimated 4.4% of U.S. adults will experience bipolar disorder at some point in their lifetime, and an estimated 2.8% of U.S. adults will experience the condition in the last year alone, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

It tends to crop up in adulthood, with the majority of patients first showing symptoms around 25 years old, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

Types

There are three main types of bipolar disorder and all three involve many of the same symptoms, including mood changes as well as shifts in energy and activity levels. Here’s a look at each type and how they differ. 

Bipolar I Disorder

This is the most well-known type of bipolar disorder and is defined by manic episodes that last at least a single week (or seven days) that are so severe that the patient requires hospitalization. The same tends to be true for their depressive episodes, which tend to last twice as long—about two weeks. 

Bipolar II Disorder

This type of bipolar disorder is defined by depressive and hypomanic episodes, but are not quite as severe as those that are seen in bipolar I disorder. 

Cyclothymic Disorder

Also known as cyclothymia, this type of bipolar disorder is marked by periods where they experience symptoms of hypomania, or elevated moods, as well as periods of intense sadness for at least two years.

The key difference with this type of bipolar disorder, however, is that the symptoms of both the highs and lows don’t meet the diagnostic requirements to be considered a true episode of either hypomania or depression. 

Symptoms

These are the most common signs and symptoms associated with a manic episode of bipolar disorder, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH):

  • Feeling “high” or “elated” 
  • Feeling irritable or touchy
  • Feeling “jumpy” or “wired”
  • Feeling less tired or in need of sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Talking very fast about several different topics
  • Feeling as though your mind is racing
  • Thinking one can manage multiple tasks at once
  • Indulging in risky behavior that shows poor judgment
  • Feeling unusually important, talented, or powerful

These are the most common signs and symptoms associated with a depressive episode of bipolar disorder, according to the NIMH:

  • Feeling very sad, “down,” empty, worried, or hopeless
  • Feeling slowed down or restless
  • Having difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Waking up too early in the morning
  • Experiencing increased appetite and weight gain
  • Talking very slowly and feeling like you have nothing to say 
  • Feeling forgetful
  • Having difficulty focusing or making decisions
  • Feeling incapable of performing even simple tasks
  • Having little interest in things that used to bring you joy
  • Having suicidal thoughts or thinking about death

If you or a loved one are struggling with mania, depression, or other symptoms of bipolar disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Causes

While scientists are still in search of a single cause of bipolar disorder, research has shown that certain factors may play a role:

  • Genetics: If your parents or one of your siblings suffers from bipolar disorder, you have an increased risk of also developing the disease. It is important to note, however, that the majority of individuals with a close family relative who has the disease do not go onto develop it. 
  • Stress: In certain cases, a stressful event, such as losing a loved one, coping with a severe illness, experiencing a divorce, or struggling with finances, can trigger an episode of bipolar disorder, be it manic or depressive.  
  • Brain structure: While bipolar disorder cannot be diagnosed with a brain scan alone, some research suggests that there are differences in the average size or activation of some of the brain structures in patients suffering from bipolar disorder.

Diagnosis

In order to reach a diagnosis, your healthcare provider will likely perform a physical exam that includes an interview where you answer a list of questions as well as standard lab tests.

Although bipolar disorder cannot be seen on a blood test or through a body scan, these tests can help your health care provider rule out other conditions that may have similar features, including hyperthyroidism

Your healthcare provider will likely recommend you to a mental health professional,  such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, who will use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to determine which type of bipolar disorder you might be suffering from based on your symptoms.

To be diagnosed with a manic episode, you must have experienced the associated symptoms for at least one week or have been hospitalized for them. In order to be diagnosed with a major depressive episode, you must have been experiencing them for at least two full weeks.

Treatment

There are several ways mental health care professionals choose to treat bipolar disorder, and what might be right for one patient might not work best for another. 

Psychotherapy

Also known as talk therapy, this type of treatment involves talking with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, about your symptoms and the condition as you’re experiencing it.

Types of psychotherapy include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), family-focused therapy, interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) and psychoeducation.

Medications

Sometimes a mental health professional will prescribe certain medications to help you manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder, such as mood stabilizers (such as lithium), antipsychotic medications, anti-anxiety medications and, although less common, antidepressants.

Day Treatment Programs

Your healthcare professional may recommend that you attend a day treatment program that is specifically designed to provide you with the support and counseling you need to cope with your condition. 

Coping

You don’t have to feel alone in your mission to cope with your bipolar disorder. Here are some practical ways of healing yourself. 

  • Be patient. Know that it will take time for your symptoms to dissipate and for you to start feeling more like your old self. With a consistent treatment plan in place, however, you will get there over time. 
  • Maintain communication with your healthcare provider. During treatment, it’s vital that you stay in close contact with your healthcare provider, as your treatment plan might change over time. 
  • Take your medication as instructed. If you are on a treatment plan that involves taking medication, it’s important that you follow all of the instructors and take the dose recommended to you by your healthcare provider. If you feel the need to change your medication, discuss this with your doctor first. 
  • Know when to seek emergency help. If you think you may be in a position to harm yourself or someone else, call 911 or your local emergency number ASAP.
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