Bipolar Disorder

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes intense shifts in one’s mood and ability to function. Individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder experience very extreme and opposite emotions for a period of time in addition to normal ones. These episodes, as they are called, are broken down into depressive, hypomanic, and manic phases. Depressive episodes are marked by low emotions and feelings of tremendous hopelessness. During a manic swing, people often feel high, very irritable, or in an excited state. Hypomania is still an elevated mood, but not quite so extreme. In between these sudden shifts are periods of stable and leveled emotions.

It is entirely natural for all of us to experience highs and lows. Each day is different from the next, and sometimes we change emotions so much within twenty-four hours. Life is unpredictable, and a lot is thrown at us to bring about such shifts in sentiment. However, most of us can handle this without losing our jobs and destroying relationships. When those mood swings become so strong that they are obstacles we cannot overcome, clearly there is an issue to be addressed.

There are three subcategories of bipolar disorder — bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder. Bipolar II disorder requires that an individual has had at least one major hypomanic episode and one depressive episode. Bipolar I disorder is for individuals who cycle between mood swings constantly and requires a manic episode to be diagnosed. Cyclothymic disorder is a milder version that, while still involving recurring episodes, has less severe symptoms and usually only lasts for a shorter period of time rather than a lifetime. The treatments for all three are very similar.

Bipolar disorder carries a tremendous stigma as affected individuals are often branded crazy or psychotic. However, the condition is entirely treatable and many go on to have productive lives. People struggling with it usually have co-occurring disorders like addiction or anxiety. Therefore, it is important to seek a dual diagnosis for the best treatment method to yield optimal results.

What Are the Risk Factors of Bipolar Disorder?

A risk factor is anything that increases the likelihood of getting an illness. In the case of bipolar disorder, the disease is genetic. 80-90 percent of individuals diagnosed with the disorder have a relative that has the disorder themselves or deals with extreme depression. In regards to biochemistry, there are some small differences in the average size or activation of certain parts of the brain that are specific to people with bipolar disorder. Environmental factors also play a huge role in developing the condition. Stressors in our surroundings and how we respond to them have a huge impact on our mental health. Intense stress, poor sleeping patterns, and substance abuse could trigger manic or depressive cycles. A highly painful situation, like the death of a loved one, end of a relationship, loss of a job, or illness, can bring about the onset of bipolar disorder. 

What Are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder can only be diagnosed if there are episodes, which would be the symptoms:

  1. A manic episode lasts for at least one week, where the individual has an abnormal amount of energy. They may need less sleep, talk louder and quicker than usual, become easily distracted, have high self-esteem, and/or increasingly engage in risky behaviors. These signs are all very clear and noticeable, to the point where they stop an individual from functioning and can be easily picked up by family and friends. Manic episodes may sometimes demand that individual be placed in hospital care to be safeguarded. The average age to experience a manic episode of these proportions is 18.
  2. A hypomanic episode is similar to a manic one but lasts for only about four days and is typically not extreme to the point that it cripples an individual from going through the day. 
  3. A depressive episode lasts for at least two weeks and is characterized by all the typical indicators of depression. This includes immense sadness, prolonged despair, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, thoughts of suicide or self-harm, low self-esteem, loss of interest in formerly enjoyable tasks, sleep-related issues like insomnia, appetite changes, loss of concentration, and random movements, as well as slowed speech and action.

Bipolar disorder is not so common in teenagers, and even less in children, usually, it begins to appear at the age of 25. It affects men and women at the same rate, with 2.8% of adults in America experiencing it annually. Most cases are treated as severe, especially considering the fact that suicide rates are much higher with bipolar disorder than with other mental illnesses. 

People with bipolar disorder are frequently misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and/or borderline personality disorder. Treating them for disorders they do not have can be potentially dangerous. Bipolar people are also much more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs during their episodes. That is why it is so imperative to recognize the signs and begin mental health treatment. If the illness goes untreated, it tends to get worse over time, and individuals become less willing to change.

What are the Treatments for Bipolar Disorder?

If you or someone you know is struggling with bipolar disorder, it is important to seek help sooner rather than later. The quicker you get the situation under your control, the sooner you can resume living a stable life with your feelings in check. There are many options out there for you, and you should speak to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist as soon as possible.

The good news is that bipolar disorder is highly treatable. While the symptoms and intensity of the illness vary person-to-person, many have sought and received relief through mental health treatment. The process itself is incredibly variable and changes person-to-person. Sometimes medication by itself is enough to get someone on the right track. Usually, medication is paired with psychotherapy or talk therapy. This is so that individuals are not just taking pills but speaking with a medical professional, so they understand why they feel the way they do. 

Talk therapy is usually a short-term treatment as it is just purposed to give the person clarity and information about their mental health. It also helps them to patch up relationships that may have been broken due to the illness. Psychotherapy can also be conducted in groups with people who all have similar illnesses or in family units, as people around bipolar individuals are also affected. Medication is more of a long-term solution to make the condition manageable, especially considering the fact that bipolar disorder is recurrent and so can come back if left untreated. The medications prescribed to treat bipolar disorder are referred to as “mood stabilizers.” This includes anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs.

In severe instances, when all other forms of treatment have been exhausted and deemed ineffective, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is implemented. While the individual is under anesthesia, a brief electrical current is applied to the scalp. The treatment usually takes 10-15 minutes and is administered two to three times weekly for up to 12 individual treatments. 

As with any illness that features depressive states, there are additional mental health treatments that can be done at home that are relatively cheap and also effective. Regular exercise helps to stimulate blood flow and the release of hormones associated with positive emotions. Eating a properly balanced diet and having proper sleep patterns also help to maintain a healthy body and a stable mood. Surrounding oneself with friends and family who can offer support and understanding combats the sense of isolation that comes with mental illness.

Dual Diagnosis: The Combination of Both Mental Illness and Addiction

Dual diagnosis is when a person suffers from both a substance use disorder, like opioid addiction and a mental health disorder at the same time. Frequently, an addiction can lead to mental illness if it leads to the point of altering one’s brain chemistry. Mental illness can also lead to an addiction as people will often self-medicate instead of seeking help.

In many cases, people develop the condition in an attempt to be “normal.” It can start with one drink to soothe social anxiety that turns into alcohol addiction. Or, abusing pain medications to try and numb memories of trauma. While these may provide short-term relief, they are not efficient long-term methods of treatment. As a result, the cycle of abuse could be deadly to the person and those around them.

It’s not surprising that dual diagnosis is highly prevalent in America. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2018, approximates 9.2 million adults experienced both mental illness and a substance use disorder that year. Sadly, only 34.5% sought mental health treatment, while 3.9% got treatment for their addiction. Even worse, only 9.1% addressed both illnesses. These statistics are unfortunate as there is treatment for mental health disorders and addiction, just as there is treatment for each condition separately. Learn more about your treatment options by speaking with an addiction treatment specialist. You can contact us by dialing (855) 425-4846. You can also contact us here.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.