What Does It Mean to be Bipolar?

Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy, activity levels and ability to think clearly. Moods are experienced as highs, known as mania, and lows, which manifest as some level of depression. These differ in intensity from what most people experience. The average age-of-onset is around 25, but, although rare in young children, it does occur during the teenage years.

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), women are somewhat more likely to be affected by bipolar disorder than men and it “has been deemed the most expensive behavioral health care diagnosis, costing more than twice as much as depression per affected individual. Total costs largely arise from indirect costs and are attributable to lost productivity, in turn arising from absenteeism and presenteeism.”

Although the condition was observed as far back as Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks, the more modern concept of bipolar disorder was studied in the mid-nineteenth century by French psychiatrists, Jules Baillarger and Jean-Pierre Falret. Baillarger wished to call it folie à double forme (dual-form insanity), while Falret believed folie circulaire (circular insanity) was a more apt description. Manic-depressive illness was the term coined in the 1950s and then replaced with bipolar disorder, which was felt to be less stigmatizing. There are, however, healthcare professionals, as well as those with the disorder who still use manic-depressive because they believe it more accurate.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

The four basic types of bipolar disorder include:

  • Bipolar I Disorder – this type is defined by at least one manic episode that may be preceded or followed by hypomanic (less severe than manic) or major depressive episodes. Sufficiently severe manic episodes may trigger psychosis, which is a break from reality.
  • Bipolar II Disorder not the full-blown manic episodes of Bipolar I but rather defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes.
  • Cyclothymic Disorder (also called cyclothymia) –  numerous periods of hypomanic symptoms as well as periods of depressive symptoms, which are less severe than major depression, lasting for at least two years (less in children and adolescents).
  • Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorders –  symptoms and episodes that are similar but do not match the three categories of bipolar disorder listed above.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Some of the symptoms of the manic stage of bipolar disorder include:

  • Excessively happy or excited
  • Sudden changes in mood, such as happy to irritable, calm to angry
  • Restlessness
  • Rapid speech
  • Poor concentration
  • Abnormal amount of energy and less need for sleep
  • Unusually high sex drive
  • Grandiosity
  • Poor judgment abilities
  • Substance abuse
  • Impulsivity

Someone in a depressive period may display:

  • Sadness
  • Lack of energy
  • Hopelessness
  • Disinterest in activities and things normally enjoyed
  • Poor concentration
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Extreme indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Needing more sleep
  • Insomnia
  • Change in appetite patterns
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Suicide attempts or ideation

No one knows what the exact cause of bipolar disorder is, but genetics, periods of high stress and substance abuse are believed to be risk factors. There is no known method for preventing this type of disorder, and, without treatment, it usually gets progressively worse. With treatment, however, once the proper combination of psychotherapy, medication and lifestyle adjustments are made, many people are able to manage their symptoms.