What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness marked by extreme shifts in mood. Symptoms can include an extremely elevated mood called mania. They can also include episodes of depression. Bipolar disorder is also known as bipolar disease or manic depression.

People with bipolar disorder may have trouble managing everyday life tasks at school or work, or maintaining relationships. There’s no cure, but there are many treatment options available that can help to manage the symptoms.

Bipolar disorder facts

Bipolar disorder isn’t a rare brain disorder. In fact, 2.8 percent of U.S. adults — or about 5 million people — have been diagnosed with it. The average age when people with bipolar disorder begin to show symptoms is 25 years old.

Depression caused by bipolar disorder lasts at least two weeks. A high (manic) episode can last for several days or weeks. Some people will experience episodes of mood swings several times a year, while others may experience them only rarely. 

Bipolar symptoms

There are three main symptoms that can occur with bipolar disorder: mania, hypomania, and depression.

While experiencing mania, a person with bipolar disorder may feel an emotional high. They can feel excited, impulsive, euphoric, and full of energy. During manic episodes, they may also engage in behavior such as:

  • spending sprees
  • unprotected sex
  • drug use

Hypomania is generally associated with bipolar II disorder. It’s similar to mania, but it’s not as severe. Unlike mania, hypomania may not result in any trouble at work, school, or in social relationships. However, people with hypomania still notice changes in their mood.

During an episode of depression you may experience:

  • deep sadness
  • hopelessness
  • loss of energy
  • lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • periods of too little or too much sleep
  • suicidal thoughts

Although it’s not a rare condition, bipolar disorder can be hard to diagnose because of its varied symptoms.

Bipolar symptoms in women

Men and women are diagnosed with bipolar disorder in equal numbers. However, the main symptoms of the disorder may be different between the two genders. In many cases, a woman with bipolar disorder may:

  • be diagnosed later in life, in her 20s or 30s
  • have milder episodes of mania
  • experience more depressive episodes than manic episodes
  • have four or more episodes of mania and depression in a year, which is called rapid cycling
  • experience other conditions at the same time, including thyroid disease, obesity, anxiety disorders, and migraines
  • have a higher lifetime risk of alcohol use disorder

Women with bipolar disorder may also relapse more often. This is believed to be caused by hormonal changes related to menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause. If you’re a woman and think you may have bipolar disorder, it’s important for you to get the facts. 

Bipolar symptoms in men

Men and women both experience common symptoms of bipolar disorder. However, men may experience symptoms differently than women. Men with bipolar disorder may:

  • be diagnosed earlier in life
  • experience more severe episodes, especially manic episodes
  • have substance abuse issues
  • act out during manic episodes

Men with bipolar disorder are less likely than women to seek medical care on their own. They’re also more likely to die by suicide.

Types of bipolar disorder

There are three main types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymia.

Bipolar I

Bipolar I is defined by the appearance of at least one manic episode. You may experience hypomanic or major depressive episodes before and after the manic episode. This type of bipolar disorder affects men and women equally.

Bipolar II

People with this type of bipolar disorder experience one major depressive episode that lasts at least two weeks. They also have at least one hypomanic episode that lasts about four days. This type of bipolar disorder is thought to be more common in women.

Cyclothymia

People with cyclothymia have episodes of hypomania and depression. These symptoms are shorter and less severe than the mania and depression caused by bipolar I or bipolar II disorder. Most people with this condition only experience a month or two at a time where their moods are stable.

When discussing your diagnosis, your doctor will be able to tell you what kind of bipolar disorder you have.

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