Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness in which common emotions become intensely and often unpredictably overblown. It is not just merely being happy and sad, but rather the polar extreme of them both, including other emotions. Individuals with bipolar disorder can quickly shift from extremes of happiness, energy and lucidity to sadness, exhaustion and disorientation. If left unchecked, these shifts can be so overwhelming that individuals may contemplate suicide. Formerly called manic depression, bipolar disorder is simply defined as a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression).
Almost all people with bipolar disorder have manic episodes: abnormally elevated or irritable moods that last at least a week and impair basic functioning. However, not all have episodes of depression. When you become depressed, you may feel sad or hopeless and lose interest or pleasure in most activities. In bipolar disorder, your mood shifts to mania or hypomania (less extreme than mania), you may feel euphoric, full of energy or unusually volatile. Such mood swings can affect sleep, social relationships, daily functioning, judgment, behavior and the ability to think clearly.
There are four basic types of bipolar disorder; all of them involve apparent shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels. As mentioned earlier, these moods range from periods of being extremely “up,” characterized by elation and highly energized behavior (known as manic episodes), or to being extremely melancholy, (down) — characterized by periods of extreme hopelessness and despair (known as depressive episodes). Listed below are the classifications taken from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
- Bipolar I Disorder— defined by manic episodes that last at least 7 days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks. Episodes of depression with mixed features (having depression and manic symptoms at the same time) are also possible.
- Bipolar II Disorder— defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, but not the full-blown manic episodes described above.
- Cyclothymic Disorder (also called cyclothymia)— defined by numerous periods of hypomanic symptoms as well as numerous periods of depressive symptoms lasting for at least 2 years (1 year in children and adolescents). However, the symptoms do not meet the diagnostic requirements for a hypomanic episode and a depressive episode.
- Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorders— defined by bipolar disorder symptoms that do not match the three categories listed above.
People with bipolar disorder can still lead healthy and productive lives with proper diagnosis and treatment. A first step for anyone who thinks he or she may have bipolar disorder should talk with a doctor or other licensed mental health professional. The doctor can request for a complete physical exam to rule out other conditions. Once other illnesses have been ruled out, the doctor may conduct a mental health evaluation or provide a referral to a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, who is trained and experienced in diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder.
Cooperation and willingness is key to finding an effective treatment for bipolar disorder. Treatment can help many people – even those with extremely severe forms of bipolar disorder – control their mood swings and other bipolar symptoms better. A combination of medication and psychotherapy (also called “talk therapy”) can be an effective treatment plan for bipolar disorder. Because bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness, manic and depressive episodes typically come back over time. Between episodes, some people with bipolar disorder may have lingering symptoms, while others are free of mood changes. Continuous and long-term treatment can help to control these symptoms and let people living with bipolar disorder lead wholesome and productive lives.