Bipolar disorder is a serious condition in which a person experiences both extremes or “poles” of feelings–mania and depression–in ways that often cause great pain and suffering for the individual, as well as for those who care about them.Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression, is characterized by wide extreme mood swings from severe highs (mania) followed by episodes of distinct lows (depression) and is most often a chronic condition. Sometimes the mood switches are dramatic and rapid, but most often they are gradual. The length of an episode varies from person to person, but each one generally lasts for several weeks. Episodes may be longer at the onset of the illness before treatment has begun. Bipolar disorder usually emerges in late adolescence or early adulthood. At any given time, more than 2 million people in the United States suffer from bipolar disorder.
Most people with bipolar disorder will have at least a year of normal, productive life between episodes. However, about 10% to 30% will develop a pattern of rapid cycling at some time during the course of their illness. Rapid cycling refers to four or more episodes occurring in one year. Unlike a typical episode, episodes which occur during rapid cycling usually last for only a day or two, or in extreme cases, just a few hours.
When one member of a family has bipolar disorder, their condition affects everyone else in the family. When episodes occur, they often feel confused, alienated and helpless. During manic phases, family and friends may watch in disbelief as their loved one transforms into a person they do not know and cannot communicate with. During episodes of depression, everyone can become frustrated as they desperately try to elevate the depressed person’s mood. Sometimes a person’s moods are so extreme and so unpredictable that family members feel like they’re stuck on an out of control roller coaster ride that is impossible to disembark from.
Symptoms of Depression and Mania
A diagnosis of bipolar I is made when a person has experienced at least one episode of severe mania; a diagnosis of bipolar II is made when a person has experienced at least one hypomanic episode but has not met the criteria for a full manic episode.
A person’s diagnosis depends on the number of symptoms they have, how strong those symptoms are, and how long they last.
- Persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
- Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Significant change in appetite or body weight
- Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down”
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
- Overly inflated self-esteem
- Inappropriate irritability
- Decreased need for sleep
- Grandiose (“larger than life”) notions
- Increased talkativeness
- Disconnected and racing thoughts
- Increased sexual desire
- Increased goal-directed activity or physical agitation
- Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences
- Inappropriate social behavior