Bipolar disorder used to be more commonly called “manic depression” or “manic-depressive illness.” Because of this, it is easy to think that bipolar disorder is a form of depression.
This is, however, not entirely accurate.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels. People with bipolar may appear extremely happy and be ridiculously productive at the “high” point of their cycle, and unable to function due to depression-like symptoms when they hit “bottom.” Bipolar can vary in its severity and is generally split into four types:
- Bipolar I Disorder. This is the most severe form, in which manic episodes (highs) last at least seven days or are so severe as to require hospitalization. Depression episodes usually last a couple of weeks, and it is also possible to experience both at the same time.
- Bipolar II Disorder. A less severe variant, usually defined by a pattern of both depressive and hypomanic episodes. Hypomania is not as severe as full-blown mania.
- Cyclothymic Disorder or Cyclothymia. These patients suffer from hypomanic and depressive symptoms, lasting for at least 2 years (1 year in adolescents or younger), but don’t meet the diagnostic requirements for hypomanic or depressive episodes.
- Other Specified Bipolar and Unspecified Bipolar Disorders. This is when the patient’s symptoms aren’t a clear match for these three categories.
What are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is characterized by a number of symptoms that take place in distinct “mood episodes.”
Symptoms of a manic episode include:
- Increased energy and activity levels.
- Elation and elevated mood
- Jumpy or wired sensation
- Unusual talkativeness, often with difficulty sticking to a topic.
- Impulsive behavior, such as going on buying sprees or taking sexual risks.
- Racing thoughts
Symptoms of a depressive episode include:
- Sad and hopeless feelings
- Decreased energy and activity levels
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Lack of enjoyment in activities
- Difficulties with concentration and memories
- Eating too much or too little
- Suicidal thoughts
Other symptoms might include anxiety or psychosis. Bipolar symptoms may change with the seasons, cycle at different speeds, or worsen during pregnancy. As a note, people with bipolar disorder often do not recognize the extent of their symptoms.
Can Bipolar Disorder be Cured?
There is no cure for bipolar disorder. It is a lifelong condition caused by a fault in brain wiring. It is in no way the sufferer’s fault. Nobody chooses to be bipolar. This also means there is no way to prevent bipolar, which appears to be primarily genetic. Most people with bipolar have a relative with bipolar, and it is fairly common for bipolar parents to pass the condition on to their children. Family history is often taken into account when diagnosing bipolar disorder.
What are the Risk Factors?
The primary risk factor, as already mentioned, is family history. However, the first episode of bipolar is often triggered by a traumatic event or other period of high stress. Serious illnesses, the death of a loved one, sexual assault, sexual or physical abuse, losing a job, moving can all trigger the first episode and can affect future episodes. Substance use, including alcohol, can also bring on the symptoms. People with a family history of bipolar should be careful with their consumption of alcohol, and should avoid other drugs.
Bipolar affects men and women equally, but women are more likely to have a faster cycle of mood (called rapid cycling) and may experience more depressive episodes.
How Bad is Untreated Bipolar Disorder?
Untreated bipolar disorder can cause serious problems for the patient and their family, and can cause problems including:
- Suicide attempts
- Poor performance in work or at school
- An inability to sustain relationships
- Substance abuse
- Financial or legal problems.
People with untreated bipolar disorder can be extremely hard to deal with and often end up burning bridges with friends and family. Even when people know something is going on, it can be hard to deal with the mood swings and odd behavior. People with bipolar disorder are also more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
How is Bipolar Disorder Treated?
Although bipolar disorder cannot be cured, there are effective treatments that can let you lead a normal life. There are two parts to the treatment: Medication and talk therapy.
Medications used to treat the disorder include mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and atypical antipsychotics. Many people have to try several different medications to find the best combination. You should not stop taking your medications, as this can result in your symptoms worsening or even experiencing a psychotic break. Withdrawal from psychiatric medications is generally bad. If you are concerned about side effects, you should talk to your doctor.
Psychotherapy treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy to help you deal with your episodes. Most doctors will also recommend family-focused therapy, which will also help your family handle things better, and interpersonal therapy to help with the relationship problems that are common.
In rare cases, electroconvulsive therapy has worked for people who are not responsive. It has also been used for bipolar patients who are pregnant, as most of the medication treatments are potentially dangerous to an unborn child.
Some patients also benefit from sleep medications to help them overcome the insomnia that is common with the disease.
What Else Can You Do?
In addition to staying on your medications and going to therapy, there are a few things that can help. Many patients still experience some mood changes, and some lifestyle changes can help mitigate them:
- Keep a life chart. On this, you record your mood symptoms and sleep patterns as well as life events or other things, such as taking your medication slightly early or slightly late. This can help you identify things which trigger episodes.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule as much as possible, and practice good sleep hygiene such as not watching TV in bed, avoiding exercise, caffeine or blue light right before bed, etc.
- Exercise, preferably early in the day.
- Eat a healthy diet. Note that although there are supplements touted to help with bipolar disorder, none are approved by the FDA.
- Learn yoga or another form of meditation to reduce stress.
- Limit caffeine, and if you do consume it, do so early in the day.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs. They can trigger an episode or mess with your medication.
Bipolar disorder is life-long, but with proper management you can learn to live with it and enjoy life to the full. If you suspect you or a loved one have bipolar disorder, you should look for a treatment center. La Ventana offers treatment programs for bipolar and other mood disorders. Contact them to find out more and schedule an appointment.