An Introduction To Bipolar Disorder

Written on 06/29/2024
Sophie Kirk

For a long time the term ‘bipolar’ was used as somewhat of a joke. A way to brush off someone whose mood had changed quickly, or who tended to easily go from being happy to angry. Thankfully over the last few years there has been more awareness of bipolar disorder, and the problems people suffering with it face on a daily basis. If you think you or someone you know might be struggling with bipolar disorder, then this guide to the basics of the condition might be helpful.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a specific mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings, from emotional highs (known as mania or hypomania) to crippling lows (depression) and changes in energy levels. Someone who struggles with bipolar can have short periods of stability in their moods, but then they can go low into a deep depression, or high into mania and even psychosis.

It’s caused by a system imbalance, which makes it difficult for your brain to regulate mood, leading to unstable and vulnerable to big swings. It can run in families, but the research has yet to identify the exact reasons it’s passed down or the genes that trigger it. Bipolar disorder can affect people of any age or background, but the symptoms usually start to surface in the teenage years. Research has found that almost 50% of people with bipolar will experience symptoms before they are 21. Over 1 million people in the UK are diagnosed with bipolar right now, and it affects between 1%-5% of people worldwide.

There are several different types of bipolar disorder, but the most common are:

Type 1: Where someone experienced depression, hypomania and mania.

Type 2: Where someone experiences long periods of depression and hypomania.

Cyclothymia: Where someone experiences periods of depression and elevated mood for at least two years.

What Are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?

The main symptoms of bipolar are significant and severe mood swings. People with bipolar disorder will have episodes of depression, where they feel low and lethargic, and mania, where they feel high and overactive. The specific symptoms they may experience at any one time depend on which mood they are experiencing at the time, with each episode lasting for weeks, or even longer. 

The thing to realise here is that bipolar mood swings go far beyond what most people experience when they feel a bit down or when they’re happy. They are intense emotions, and a low period can send them into a deep depression with suicidal thoughts, while a high period can make them feel euphoric and even trigger hallucinations. It’s a condition that doesn’t just affect the people diagnosed with it, but their family and close friends as well, who are subjected to these swings themselves.

Spotting The Early Warning Signs of a Bipolar Episode

One of the most difficult challenges of managing bipolar disorder is that sufferers often lack insight. That means that in the middle of a major mood episode (in either direction), their mood radar stops working, and they don’t recognise that it’s happening. Given that the earlier you intervene, the better the chances are of keeping a full-blown mood episode at bay, being able to recognise the signs is important.

Depression Red Flags

A major depressive episode is usually easiest to recognise for both the sufferer and the people around them. You will feel exhausted, achy, and carrying a deep feeling of despair around with you. But there are some less obvious signs that a depressive episode is on its way, including:

  • A loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Decreased energy
  • Withdrawing from friends and social interactions
  • Irritability, anxiety or anger
  • Slowed thinking and movement
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Inability to make a decision
  • Sleeping too much, or not being able to sleep at all
  • Impaired memory

Mania Red Flags

As with depression, there are some easy to spot signs that a manic episode (also known as hypomania) is on the way. The biggest thing to look for here is changes in sleep. Needing less sleep is a huge red flag for a manic episode, which is why many people with bipolar are advised to track how much sleep they need on a daily basis. Some of the more subtle signs of mania include:

  • Increased energy
  • Restlessness
  • Rapid, pressured speech (when you can’t stop talking)
  • Overspending
  • Impulsive and inappropriate speech or behaviour
  • Increased sex drive
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anger or hostility
  • Racing thoughts
  • Excitability and irritability
  • Heightened self-esteem

It’s interesting to note that both irritability and anger come up in both poles, being common signs of both depression and mania. These emotions aren’t so much a signal of a specific mood episode, but more as a warning that a mood change is coming, and should be used as an early intervention point.

Can Bipolar Disorder Be Cured?

No. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, as it is a fundamental systems issue within the brain. But there are treatment options available to help manage the symptoms and help sufferers lead normal lives. Treatment varies from person to person, but some of the options include:

Medication: There are generally two methods of medication you will be recommended. The first is a mood stabiliser, which is taken on a long-term basis to help prevent episodes of mania and depression. The second is medication that treats the main symptoms of depression and mania when they do happen, which you take when needed.

Trigger Recognition: Learning to recognise your own triggers and the signs of a depressive or manic episode.

Psychological Treatment: Talking therapies can be helpful in dealing with depression, managing your relationships and navigating manic swings.

Lifestyle Advice: General lifestyle advice can be useful in helping you avoid triggers and managing your general mental health better. The aim is to improve your chances of staying in a stable mood by removing a lot of the variables that can make mood swings more likely.

Alongside medications, understanding your own mental health is one of the best things you can do if you struggle with bipolar disorder. Experimenting with various techniques can help you build your own mental health toolkit, which can be invaluable in managing bipolar disorder on a day-to-day basis. At Melp, we provide this holistic mental health support app that provides access to a wide range of tools and techniques to help understand and regulate mood, as well as improving general mental health along the way. Used alongside your traditional treatment options (as recommended by your doctor), we could help you unlock a healthier, happier daily life.