Bipolar disorder is also known as manic depression because a person’s mood can alternate between opposing “poles” of manic highs and depressive lows. This illness is marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy, and behavior. These mood swings can last for hours, days, weeks, or months. Most importantly, it is not a character flaw or sign of personal weakness, but a treatable illness.
Nearly six million adult Americans are affected by bipolar disorder. It usually begins in late adolescence often appearing as depression during the teen years, although it can start in early childhood or later in life. An equal number of men and women develop this illness—men tend to begin with a manic episode, women with a depressive episode—and it is found among all races, ethnic groups, and social classes. The illness tends to run in families and appears to have a genetic link. Like depression and other serious illnesses, bipolar disorder can also negatively affect spouses and partners, family members, friends, and coworkers.
Bipolar disorder differs significantly from clinical depression, although the symptoms for the depressive phase of the illness are similar. Most people with bipolar disorder describe experiencing severe highs and lows ranging from extreme energy to deep despair. The severity of the mood swings and their disruption of normal life activities distinguishes bipolar mood episodes from ordinary mood changes.
When people experience symptoms of both a manic and a depressive episode at the same time, they’re said to be experiencing a mixed state or mixed mania. They have all of the negative feelings that come with depression, but they also feel agitated, restless, and activated, or “wired.” Those who have experienced a mixed state often describe it as the very worst part of bipolar disorder.
Symptoms of Mania: The Highs of Bipolar Disorder
- Heightened mood, exaggerated optimism, and self-confidence
- Excessive irritability, aggressive behavior
- Decreased need for sleep without experiencing fatigue
- Grandiose thoughts, inflated sense of self-importance
- Racing speech, racing thoughts, flight of ideas
- Impulsiveness, poor judgment, easily distracted
- Reckless behavior
- In the most severe cases, delusions and hallucinations
Symptoms of Depression: The Lows of Bipolar Disorder
- Prolonged sadness or unexplained crying spells
- Significant changes in appetite and sleep patterns
- Irritability, anger, worry, agitation, anxiety
- Pessimism, indifference
- Loss of energy, persistent lethargy
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness
- Inability to concentrate, indecisiveness
- Inability to take pleasure in former interests, social withdrawal
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
As you can see from the list above, the symptoms of bipolar disorder’s low period are very similar to those of unipolar depression. That’s why the lows of this illness are sometimes referred to as “bipolar depression.” These lows are one thing that most mood disorders have in common.
People with bipolar disorder experience bipolar depression more often than mania or hypomania. Bipolar depression is also more likely to be accompanied by disability and suicidal thinking and behavior.
It’s during periods of bipolar depression that most people get professional help and receive a diagnosis. In fact, most people with bipolar disorder in the outpatient setting are initially seen for—and diagnosed with—unipolar depression.
Studies show that in the primary care setting alone, 10-25% of those diagnosed with unipolar depression may actually have bipolar disorder. And the percentage is even higher in the psychiatric setting. Incorrect diagnosis and treatment for bipolar disorder can actually lead to episodes of mania and other problems. Learn more about bipolar depression in this brochure, Mood Disorders and Different Kinds of Depression.
Types of Bipolar Disorder
Patterns and severity of symptoms determine whether bipolar I disorder or bipolar II disorder is diagnosed. More on types of Bipolar Disorder
Treatment of bipolar disorder may include support groups, medication, talk therapy, or other strategies that you and your health care provider may want to try. The right treatment is the one that works best for you. More on treatments
Bipolar Disorder across the Lifespan
Bipolar disorder can affect anyone, including children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. More on Bipolar Disorder across the Lifespan.
More about Bipolar Disorder
FAQs and Statistics
Below are links to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about bipolar disorder, who’s most affected by bipolar disorder, and the economic impact of bipolar disorder.
Below are links to some of DBSA’s brochures which address the topic of bipolar disorder. View a complete list of all of DBSA’s brochures, available online as free downloads.