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What is Bipolar Disorder?

“They’re so bipolar” is a phrase that gets thrown around, usually meaning that someone’s mood or behaviour changes quickly, but what really is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar Disorder, which was formerly known as “manic depression”, is a mental health condition where the mood swings from one extreme to the other – from mania, to depression. Mania is feeling “high”, whereas depression is feeling “low”. We all have changes in our mood, but in Bipolar Disorder the key is that the moods are often extreme, and are persistent for a period of time. For a mood episode to be classed as mania, the episode must last at least a week, but these episodes can persist longer.

Most people are familiar with the symptoms of depression, but check out our blog “What is depression” for more information. But what is mania? During a manic episode of Bipolar Disorder people tend to feel very happy, excitable and energetic. They often don’t want to sleep or even eat. They often talk quickly, flitting from one subject to another, and have big plans and ideas. They can spend large sums of money on things they cannot afford or wouldn’t normally want. They often become irritable, and can become easily distracted and sometimes have a feeling of being invincible. Some people also experience symptoms of psychosis, and are able to see or hear things that are not there or be convinced of things which are not true.

There are different types of Bipolar Disorder, including Bipolar 1 and Bipolar 2. Bipolar 1 is the classic symptoms of mania and depression as described, whereas Bipolar 2 is “less extreme”. Bipolar 2 features depression too, but the high episodes are classed as “hypomania”; this is a less severe form of mania with an elevated mood but which is less impactful, less severe, and lasting 4 days or more, but never including psychotic symptoms.

So what can we do about it?

The highs and the lows can be very challenging to live with, and so it is important to get the appropriate help to minimise the impact of the episodes. There are medications that can be taken to stabilise the mood, which are taken long term. There are also medications that can be taken during an episode, to reduce the symptoms. Also talking therapies have been shown to be effective in management of depressive symptoms in particular.

Is there anything else that can be done to help avoid episodes? Mood episodes can often be triggered by specific things, which can vary from person to person. Some common examples of triggers are stress, lack of sleep, significant life events or changes to medication. Sticking to a routine, including taking medication regularly, a good sleep routine and trying to exercise and practice relaxation methods can help. Learning to recognise the triggers and early signs of an episode, and sharing this with loved ones can be extremely helpful to ensure there is a support system in place.

If you are concerned that you or someone you care about seems to be showing signs of possible Bipolar Disorder, reach out to a medical professional.

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