What is Bipolar?

Kelly Davis, Mental Health America

Bipolar disorder isn’t just being “moody” or emotional. People who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder experience extended periods of extreme high energy and mood and extended periods of extreme low energy and mood with periods of feeling “normal” in between.

Highs, also called “mania” or “manic episodes,” can include having lots of energy, euphoric feelings, thoughts of being unstoppable, impulsivity, poor judgement, decreased need for sleep, and impulsive behavior like spending too much money, having risky sex, and abusing drugs and alcohol. People sometimes experience paranoia, see things that other people don’t see, or hear things that other people don’t hear. During a serious “manic episode,” some people are hospitalized.

Hypomania is less intense than mania. It still involves things like periods of high energy and mood, less sleep, and impulsivity, but it does not cause problems for people in the same way that mania can. In fact, hypomania often goes unnoticed when people are working with professionals, which contributes to people being misdiagnosed.

It’s important to note that these behaviors represent serious changes from what a person is typically like. For example, it is likely untrue that someone who is typically impulsive, generally only sleep 5 hours a night, or has a history of poor financial decisions is experiencing mania.

These high are often followed by the extreme lows of depression. This can include extended periods of time feeling worthless, numb, sad, restless, or empty. Loss of physical energy, digestive problems, and changes in sleep and eating are also common during depression. People sometimes experience thoughts of death and people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are typically at higher risk than others for suicide.

Other important terms when talking about bipolar disorder are:

  • Bipolar I Disorder: Individuals diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder have experienced at least one episode of mania. They typically have also experienced depression and hypomania as well.
  • Bipolar II Disorder: Individuals diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder have experienced at least one episode of depression and one episode of hypomania. They tend to experience more intense or frequent periods of depression.
  • Cyclothymic Disorder: People are diagnosed with cyclothymic disorder when they experience hypomania and symptoms of depression on a fairly regular basis. While not as extreme as Bipolar Disorder, it can still cause serious problems in a person’s life.
  • Rapid Cycling: This phrase is used when someone experiences four or more episodes of mania, hypomania or depression over the course of a year.
  • Mixed Episode: This phrase is used when someone is experiencing symptoms of mania and depression at the same time. A person experiencing a mixed episode is considered to be at high risk for attempting or completing suicide.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder can feel scary, but it does not have to be the end of the world. With a combination of therapy, lifestyle changes, support, and/or medication people do live full, meaningful lives. There are many people who live with bipolar disorder who are successful and have made great contributions to the world, their communities, and their loved ones.

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