Bipolar disorder

Also known as bipolar affective disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder in which you experience extreme highs and extreme lows.

Key points

  1. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression. 
  2. First episodes tend to happen in people under 20 years of age.
  3. Most people with the condition remain well for long periods. However, the earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the recovery usually is.
  4. Treatment includes medication for acute episodes of mania or depression, and mood stabilisers to keep episodes at bay.
  5. Bipolar can be a frightening, overwhelming experience, but there is crisis help and psychological support to help you.
  6. While there is no cure for bipolar disorder, many people have learned to manage their bipolar disorder and live happy and fulfilling lives.

What is bipolar disorder?

The word bipolar describes the mood fluctuations – from the extremely elated mood (mania) to the very low mood (depression) – that people with this condition experience.

We all have mood swings and times of feeling low or excited. With bipolar disorder, these mood swings are more extreme and affect your ability to carry out normal daily tasks. These mood swings can last days, weeks or months.

Bipolar disorder occurs in up to 2.5% of the population. This includes some of the greatest writers, medical people, musicians, artists and scientists in history, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale and Mark Twain. 

However, experiencing bipolar disorder can be an overwhelming, frightening, isolating and debilitating experience. 

If you are in crisis, you may feel your world has fallen apart, that everything is black, that nothing makes sense or that you are in danger. Please get crisis help right away if you feel like this.

What causes bipolar disorder?

The cause for bipolar disorder remains unclear. However, factors believed to play a role include genetics, brain chemicals, environmental factors and medical illnesses. Sometimes its onset can be linked to a stressful life event.

Genetic factors are thought to account for about 80% of the cause of the condition. 

  • If one parent has bipolar disorder, there is a 10 per cent chance that his or her child will develop the illness.
  • If both parents have bipolar disorder the likelihood of their child developing the illness rises to 40 per cent.

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

Bipolar mood changes are called mood episodes. You may have manic episodes, depressive episodes or mixed episodes (which include both manic and depressive symptoms).

Elated mood can range from fairly mild (hypomania) through to extremely elated mood, known as mania. Signs of mania can include a lack of need for sleep, pressured speech, excess spending, agitation and racing thoughts. 

Depression might be identified by extreme tiredness despite sleeping a lot, bouts of uncontrollable crying, loss of interest and motivation, feeling hopeless, helpless or worthless for some time and having thoughts about dying.

These behaviours may develop slowly, so it can be hard to tell whether some are part of your normal character. In extreme cases, the symptoms are very intense and you may put yourself or others at risk or feel ashamed after you have recovered. 

Symptoms of mania

People having a manic episode may:

  • feel very up or high
  • feel jump or wired
  • talk really fast about a lot of different things
  • be agitated, irritable or touchy
  • have trouble relaxing or sleeping
  • think they can do a lot of things at once and are more active than usual
  • do risky things, like spend a lot of money or have unsafe sex.

Symptoms of depression

People having a depressive episode may:

  • feel very down or sad
  • feel worried and empty
  • have trouble concentrating
  • forget things a lot
  • lose interest in fun activities and become less active
  • feel tired or slowed down
  • have trouble sleeping
  • think about death or suicide.

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?

You can do a self-test to see if you might have the symptoms of bipolar disorder: Self-test for bipolar disorder Black Dog Institute, Australia

If you think you or someone you care about has these symptoms, see your family doctor (GP). The earlier a diagnosis is made, the better the recovery usually is.

Your doctor may do a physical exam and ask for blood test to rule out any other conditions that may be causing your symptoms. If they think you might have bipolar disorder, they will assess your symptoms to see if they meet the criteria from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 

Bipolar disorder includes 3 different conditions – bipolar I, bipolar II and cyclothymic disorder.

  • Bipolar I disorder is a manic-depressive disorder that can exist both with and without psychotic episodes.
  • Bipolar II disorder consists of depressive and manic episodes that alternate and are typically less severe and do not inhibit function.
  • Cyclothymic disorder is a cyclic disorder that causes brief episodes of hypomania and depression. 

To be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you must have experienced at least 1 episode of mania or hypomania.

To be considered mania, the elevated, expansive or irritable mood must last for at least 1 week and be present most of the day, nearly every day. To be considered hypomania, the mood must last at least 4 days in a row and be present most of the day, almost every day.

During this period, 3 or more of the following symptoms must be present and represent a significant change from usual behaviour:

  • inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
  • decreased need for sleep
  • increased talkativeness
  • racing thoughts
  • easily distracted 
  • increased goal-directed activity or agitated movement
  • engaging in activities that hold the potential for painful consequences, eg, unrestrained buying sprees.

The depressive side of bipolar disorder is characterised by a major depressive episode resulting in depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in life. You must experience 5 or more of the following symptoms in 2 weeks to be diagnosed with a major depressive episode:

  • depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
  • loss of interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities
  • significant weight loss or decrease or increase in appetite
  • engaging in purposeless movements, such as pacing the room
  • fatigue or loss of energy
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt.

What is the treatment for bipolar disorder?

If your doctor thinks you have bipolar disorder, they may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

With help and support from family and friends, most people learn to manage their bipolar disorder and get on with life. You are likely to have times when your are well and times when you are unwell. The treatment offered by your doctor or psychiatrist is tailored to your needs to help you recover from periods of illness so you get back to your normal moods and behaviours. they then adjust your treatment to help you remain well. 

Most people return to their usual level of functioning after times of illness, although about 1 in 5 will have some ongoing difficulties.

Medication

There are several medicines that have been shown to be helpful in relieving depression and others that are useful in stabilising moods. It is quite common for people with bipolar disorder to be taking some medication long term. Your doctor can help you find the ones that suit you best without causing unnecessary side effects.

Treatment for bipolar disorder can be tricky, when compared to treating (unipolar) depression, because taking an antidepressant drug at the wrong time runs the risk of 'flipping' your depression into a manic mood. This means that mood stabiliser drugs and antidepressants are used carefully, and introduced gradually.

You may be referred to a psychiatrist so that your mood problems and the best treatment for you can be worked out early on. Even so, there may be some trial and error until the best combination for you is worked out.

Talking to your doctor will help you understand your moods and regain control of your life. 

Commonly used mood stabilising medications are:

  • lithium*, valproate.

Sometimes antipsychotic drugs or sedatives are also useful.

If you are taking lithium, you will need regular blood tests to check the right amount is being given. The mood benefits may take a few months to really be noticed. If the lithium level in your blood gets too high you may notice shakes and twitches, weakness, slurred speech, sleepiness, stomach cramps, loss of appetite and vomiting. Contact your doctor, psychiatrist or practice nurse right away. Stop the lithium if you cannot contact your doctor.

Commonly used antidepressant drugs are:

  • fluoxetine, paroxetine, citalopram.

If your medicines cause you problems, talk to your doctor, nurse or psychiatrist. They can check you have the most appropriate medication at the right dose. Your doctor will be happy to talk about any medication side effects that might be a problem. Depending on the medicine, these can include weight gain, stomach problems, slowed thinking, tremors (shakes, twitches) or nausea.

The use of medications during pregnancy needs consultation with an expert.

Taking your medication every day as directed is important for keeping well long term.

Talking therapy

Psychotherapy can help you develop skills and strategies to manage the condition. It also gives you a non-judgmental place to deal with any emotions, such as sadness, guilt, anger or shame.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

In some circumstances, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) might be recommended. Read more about ECT.

Self-care for bipolar disorder

There is much you and your family/whānau can do to help you develop skills and strategies for reducing mood swings and staying well. 

  • Exercise helps your mental as well as physical wellbeing (the benefits can be substantial).
  • Avoid all alcohol and illegal drugs (they cause mood changes).
  • Eat a healthy diet  fish oils (omega-3) may help.
  • Get a good sleep every night  a few nights of poor sleep can trigger a manic episode, so if sleep is a problem ask your doctor about ways to help you sleep (which may include medication).
  • Learn about your condition and ways different people manage it.
  • Try to keep your life balanced and learn how to manage stress.
  • Learn your warning signs to you can get help early before your mood becomes too high or low.
  • Talk to trusted friends and relatives about bipolar disorder so they can be there for you when you need it.
  • Keep a Daily Mood Swing diary to rate your moods from 1–10 and record factors affecting your mood and sleep. This helps detect changes early.
  • Find out if there is a self-management programme near you. 

Learn more

Bipolar affective disorder Mental Health Foundation, NZ
Bipolar disorder – for young people Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK
What is bipolar disorder? Balance Aotearoa
Bipolar disorder Black Dog Institute, Australia
Online directory Linkage, NZ

References

  1. Bipolar disorder: New Zealand treatment guide for consumers and carers Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, 2005
  2. Bipolar disorder Your Health in Mind, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, 2017
  3. What is bipolar disorder? National Institute of Mental Health, US
  4. Bipolar definition and DSM-V diagnostic criteria PsycCom, US
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.