Written by: Toni Foot
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder (previously referred to as ‘Manic depression’) is a psychological disorder involving periods of polarized emotions and symptoms. There are two main states: depression and mania. An individual suffering from bipolar will usually swing between these states, sometimes very rapidly (rapid cycling). Some sufferers experience periods of ‘normality’ between their extreme moods and some may experience slow changes over several months or even years.
What causes bipolar disorder?
There is unfortunately no clear cause of this disorder. There are several factors that appear to be linked to the onset of bipolar disorder, but as yet, experts have been unable to identify any causal relationship between them.
Bipolar disorder often runs in families, and family members of someone diagnosed with the disorder are more likely to develop it than other people, although there is no one gene responsible for the onset of bipolar disorder.
Imbalance of neurotransmitters
If the natural balance of neurotransmitters is disrupted then the person can experience symptoms of depression or mania. For instance, too much norepinephrine correlates to feelings of mania where too little norepinephrine accompanies feelings of depression.
Bipolar episodes are often triggered by significant events in an individual’s life. This could be the death of someone close to them, the breakdown of a relationship or suffering physical, emotional or sexual abuse. It could be that a person is under significant stress from work or money problems and feels overwhelmed.
What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
There are two clear states, mania and depression. By its nature, bipolar disorder manifests itself in contradictory patterns of symptoms. A person may experience:
- Feelings of elation, extreme happiness or positivity.
- Over-confidence in their abilities (physical or otherwise).
- Excess energy, sometimes leading to a need for physical exercise or feelings of extreme restlessness.
- Sleeplessness. Someone in a manic phase may need very little sleep to feel very energized.
- Rapid speech.
- Inability to focus or a tendency to over-think things (racing thoughts).
- Increased impulsivity. This can lead to making sudden or unexpected decisions. For some people this includes having spending sprees or taking on debts they cannot afford to repay.
- Increased creativity. Sometimes people in a manic state will have fantastic ideas or be able to produce very creative pieces of work.
- Increased interest in sex.
- Reduced cognitive function. They may feel ‘slow’ or unable to understand things they hear or read.
- Hallucinations (hearing, feeling or seeing things that aren’t there).
- Slowed speech.
- Memory loss.
- Self-destructive behaviour.
- Unexplained pain, often, but not limited to, headaches or joint pain.
- Reduced interest in pleasurable activities.
- Fear of social situations or leaving home.
Other symptoms of Bipolar disorder
There are some other symptoms that could be experienced in both the manic and depressive phases of bipolar disorder:
- Suicidal thoughts. Both manic and depressive states can be overwhelming for an individual.
- Dependency on alcohol or substance abuse. These can feel like escapism for some individuals with bipolar disorder. Unfortunately in reality such substances often make the symptoms worse and lead to further social and personal issues.
- Inability to stick to routines. This means that holding down a job is too challenging for them and they may appear unreliable to friends and family members.
- Inability to form and maintain relationships.
How is bipolar disorder treated?
The most common treatments for individuals with bipolar disorder are medicines that help to balance the levels of neurotransmitters in the body and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Individuals may be given medicines to manage the depressive and manic phases as and when they occur, or stabilizers that help prevent the extreme symptoms of manic or depressive states. It may also be necessary to treat specific symptoms as the person experiences manic and depressive episodes, depending on how the disorder affects them individually. As many individuals with bipolar disorder have suffered significantly stressful experiences, some form of talking therapy may be appropriate to help them deal with their particular situation.
It may be possible to identify signs that a manic or depressive episode is about to happen. If this is the case, an individual may be taught to spot these early warning signs and how to respond to reduce the effect of the coming episode.
What should I do if I think I have bipolar disorder?
The first thing you should do is go to see your GP to discuss your symptoms. You may be referred to a psychiatrist who can assess you and arrange a treatment plan for you. You should also consider talking to someone close to you about your condition so that you have support from someone who cares about you. Being open and honest with them may also help them to understand what may seem like irrational and perhaps hurtful behaviour.