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What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is also known as manic depression or manic depressive disorder. While other forms of depression are primarily characterized by prolonged feelings of sadness, guilt, despair and apathy toward one’s life, in cases of bipolar disorder, periods of extreme depression alternate with periods of extreme mania. The transitioning from one of these seemingly opposite emotional poles to the other forms what is known as a mood cycle.

The duration of each phase of the cycle can vary dramatically from person to person — mania or depression can last for days or years. And for some people with bipolar disorder, the mood cycles include an intermittent time between the highs and lows in which the sufferer feels relatively level emotionally, experiencing neither extreme.

Bipolar Mania: “Highs”

During the manic stage of the mood cycle, a person with bipolar disorder will feel excessively happy and/or energetic and excitable. This can be a very positive and productive time; however, this productive energy is often accompanied or followed by irritability and irrationality.

Did You Know?

Young children can suffer from bipolar disorder. Although the illness is much more common in older teens and adults, there have been cases in which doctors concluded that children as young as two years old displayed bipolar symptoms. Diagnosis of early-onset bipolar disorder remains controversial and difficult, however, in part because its symptoms can closely resemble those of ADHD.

A bipolar person experiencing worsening mania may, in many ways, resemble someone who is high on drugs in that their euphoric feeling of invincibility can lead them to display the same kinds of potentially self-destructive behavior. They may not sleep enough and set unreasonably ambitious personal and professional goals for themselves. Reckless behavior that includes spending sprees, sexual promiscuity, dangerous driving or substance abuse is not uncommon.

Bipolar Depression: “Lows”

The depressive periods of the bipolar mood cycle resemble other types of clinical depression. Common symptoms include over- or undereating, fatigue and lack of energy, loss of interest in personal care and previously enjoyed activities, and feelings of hopelessness.

Although mania is what differentiates bipolar disorder from other, unipolar forms of depression, studies have indicated that, for the majority of bipolar sufferers, their periods of depression last longer and are more extreme than their periods of mania. There is also evidence to suggest that bipolar depression comes with an increased occurrence of high-risk depression symptoms, such as significantly disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

Assessing Your Risk

Unfortunately, science doesn’t yet provide a clear understanding of the cause of bipolar disorder, although many experts point to an imbalance of neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) as the most likely culprit. Factors that are believed to influence the risk for and severity of bipolar disorder include:

  • Genetics. There is very strong evidence to suggest a genetic component in the prediction of bipolar disorder — your chance of developing it is higher if there is a history of it in your family, and particularly if one of your parents is bipolar.
  • Gender. Gender plays a role not in your risk of developing bipolar disorder but in the risk that your symptoms will be more severe; while men and women appear to be affected at equal rates, women are more likely to suffer from rapid cycling bipolar disorder, which means experiencing four or more mood cycles per year.
  • Stressors. As with gender, stressful environmental factors or life events don’t increase your risk of developing bipolar disorder, but if you have it, they may make your symptoms more difficult to treat.

Statistics suggest that many people suffer unnecessarily from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. There is no known way to prevent the disorder, but being aware of the warning signs — most notably, a pattern of extreme, violent and unexplainable changes in mood and behavior — is the best precautionary measure.

Treating Bipolar Disorder

The ideal bipolar treatment plan requires a combination of medication and professional and personal support. Usually, different types of medications, such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers, are prescribed to treat the varied symptoms of bipolar disorder. Patients will also receive psychotherapy as part of their treatment, and positive reinforcement from family, friends and a local support group can also be very important in the successful management of bipolar disorder.

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