What are bipolar disorders?

Bipolar disorders are mental illnesses that can cause mood swings. These swings can include mania and hypomania.

Types of bipolar disorders: 

  • Bipolar I: At least one manic episode that lasts for at least seven days or requires hospitalization
  • Bipolar II: Alternating depressive and hypomanic episodes
  • Cyclothymic disorder: Alternating periods of hypomania and depression mixed with normal moods
  • Unspecified bipolar disorder: Periods of elevated moods that don't fit in with the other types of bipolar disorders

Causes of bipolar disorders

Scientists and researchers haven't identified causes of bipolar disorders. There may be some brain differences in people with the disorders. Stressful events such as a death, divorce or financial problems may also trigger a manic episode that leads to a diagnosis.

Risk factors for bipolar disorders

It's not possible to predict who might develop bipolar disorders. People who experience the following have an increased risk:
Substance abuse: Misusing drugs or alcohol can trigger a manic or depressive episode. This can also make the symptoms of the episode worse. Certain prescription medications can have a similar effect.

  • Trauma: Abuse may increase your chances of developing bipolar disorders. That's the case even if the event happened when you were a child. Stressful situations and lack of sleep can cause a manic episode.
  • Gender: Equal numbers of men and women have bipolar disorders. Women are more likely to be rapid cyclers. They often have more depressive episodes than men. Rapid cycling means a person experiences four or more manic, hypomanic or depressive episodes in a year.
  • Family history: Bipolar disorders appear to run in families. A person with a parent or sibling who has a bipolar disorder may be more likely to develop it. Most people with a family history of bipolar disorder never show signs of the illness.

Symptoms of bipolar disorders

The main symptom of bipolar disorders is distinct mood episodes. Mania is an elevated mood. Manic episodes typically need to last for at least one week. During this time, you may have very high energy levels or irritability. Other signs of a mania might include:

  • Rapid speech
  • Increased activity
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Psychotic behaviors
  • Taking on too many projects at the same time
  • Engaging in risky behaviors like spending a lot of money

Hypomania symptoms aren't as severe as full mania. People with hypomanic episodes are usually able to function well. They don't always show signs of psychosis.
In people with bipolar disorders, manic episodes give way to periods of depression. During a depressive episode, you may feel sad and have low energy levels. Other symptoms of depression can include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Forgetfulness
  • Decreased activity
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Difficulty sleeping or excessive sleeping
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worry and emptiness

Diagnosis of bipolar disorders

Medical doctors, including psychiatrists, and psychologists can diagnose bipolar disorders. These are doctors who specialize in treating people who have mental illnesses. They follow specific criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is a guidebook that helps doctors diagnose mental illness. 
To make the diagnosis, your doctor gives you a physical exam. They ask you questions and may want you to do lab tests. Bipolar disorder doesn't show up in your blood. Doctors use the lab test to make sure you don't have conditions with similar symptoms. You need to have at least one episode of mania or hypomania to have a bipolar disorder diagnosis.

Treatments for bipolar disorders

Most people with bipolar disorders take medication to control their symptoms. These may include mood stabilizers, antipsychotic medications and antidepressants.
In combination with prescribed medication, you may need psychotherapy. This means you discuss your behaviors with a therapist. During sessions, you can learn how to deal with symptoms of mania and depression. Exercise, meditation and prayer may also help some people cope.

Recovery from bipolar disorders

There's no cure for bipolar disorders. People often manage them with a combination of medication, psychotherapy and other therapies. Some people diagnosed with a bipolar disorder in their teenage years see their symptoms decrease. Symptoms sometimes disappear after teens' brains finish developing in their early adult years.