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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Toller

Bipolar Disorder: What You Need to Know

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depressive disorder, is a mental illness characterized by the shifts between extreme moods; periods of mania followed by depression, and vice versa. Everyone has emotional ups and downs; life is full of highs and lows. For people with bipolar disorder, these mood swings shift rapidly from one extreme to another and last for weeks or even months.

These mood changes can lead to risky behaviour, damaged relationships and careers, and suicidal tendencies if left untreated. Mood swings can be equally difficult for families and loved ones. Some experts say it is one of the most difficult mental illnesses to accept. Unfortunately, and too often, the behaviours associated with bipolar disorder are often attributed to personal failing rather than the mental health condition that caused it.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder is essential for those affected (and their loved ones) to get the needed support. Here is what you should know about bipolar disorder and when to seek help if you or someone you know is suffering because of it.

Signs & Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

The first step in diagnosing bipolar disorder is identifying the symptoms that indicate the presence of the illness. Knowing the signs can be tricky, as not all people experience the same symptoms — they may also vary in intensity and frequency over time. This is why enlisting the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist is often necessary for making a diagnosis. The following are the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder:

Manic Phase

  • exaggerated self-confidence or feelings of grandeur

  • decreased need for sleep

  • more talkative than usual

  • racing thoughts

  • easily distracted

  • excessive energy for activities

  • engaging in risky behaviour or exhibiting poor judgement

Experts say that a manic period can be very productive. People who are experiencing mania may believe that things are going well. However, mania can be dangerous when it takes a turn for the worse. Irresponsible behaviours, sexual promiscuity, personal or occupational risks, and financial irresponsibility may all result from a manic episode.

Hypomania is a less intense form of mania. Someone with hypomania may feel productive and energetic, and life can seem disrupted. Hypomania can still be dangerous and may lead to severe depression or mania and must be treated.

Depressive Phase

  • depressed mood

  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable

  • weight loss or gain

  • difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much

  • apathy or agitation

  • loss of energy

  • loss of libido

  • feelings of worthlessness and guilt

  • inability to concentrate

  • thoughts of suicide (which should always be taken seriously)

Signs of the manic phase and depressive phase can co-occur as well, meaning that symptoms of both can show up as a part of the same episode. When this happens, the episode is said to have ''mixed features.''

It is important to note that in isolation, these symptoms do not indicate someone has bipolar disorder. To determine if the combination of symptoms is, in fact, bipolar disorder, mental health professionals use different tools to come to that diagnosis.

Causes and Risk Factors of Bipolar Disorder

Although the specific causes of bipolar disorder are unknown, there is strong evidence that biological factors play a significant role. Biological factors, including genetics, are thought to be involved. Family relationships or stressful situations do not cause the disorder. Still, they might trigger an episode if the individual already has the condition.

Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally, as well as all races, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes. Gender appears to play an equal role in the manifestation of bipolar disorder. Still, rapid cycling is seen more frequently in women. Women also tend to experience more mixed and depressed states than men. Bipolar disorder can present itself at any age, but typically, onset occurs around age 25.

When to See a Doctor

If you or someone you know experiences several of the above signs and symptoms for a long time — at least two weeks — it is vital to seek professional help. Bipolar disorder is often misdiagnosed because people are more likely to seek help during the depressive phases and are incorrectly diagnosed with depression. In the manic phase, people with bipolar disorder may not realize that their mood and behaviour are causing disruptions due to the euphoric aspects.

People with bipolar diagnoses need to see their doctor often to evaluate how well any prescription medications are working. They should also regularly talk with a registered psychotherapist.

People with bipolar disorder should seek immediate help or call 911 if:

  • They are having suicidal thoughts

  • They are having thoughts of self-harm

  • They are a danger to themselves or others

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but it can be treated with therapy and medication. Working with a mental health professional when treating bipolar disorder is crucial so you can learn how to recognize the symptoms and adequately manage the condition. Treatment typically entails a combination of at least one mood-stabilizing drug and/or atypical antipsychotics, antidepressants, and psychotherapy.

Lifestyle changes may also help prevent or lessen episodes, like:

  • keeping a mood chart or journal

  • avoiding alcohol and illegal drugs

  • finding supportive people, either through friends and family or support groups

  • forming and nurturing healthy relationships

  • getting enough sleep

  • following a healthful diet and exercise routine

  • speaking to a doctor before taking any other medications

  • practicing stress management techniques, such as meditation

A person with bipolar disorder can manage and control the condition by combining treatment with a healthy lifestyle. Finding the right combination of medicine for a person with bipolar disorder may take some time. But the goal of bipolar disorder treatment is to help the person recover. This includes:

  • treating symptoms until they no longer cause distress

  • improving work and social functioning

  • reducing the risk of relapse.


Bipolar disorder can be a challenging illness to live with, but it is treatable. If you or a loved one may be struggling with bipolar disorder, it's essential to seek help so that you can manage the condition. Treatment for bipolar disorder can be challenging, but it can be effectively treated with the right plan. Staying with that plan to prevent a more severe episode is essential. People with this disorder can lead healthy, happy lives. If you or someone you know is struggling with bipolar disorder, it is vital to seek help.

Treatment for Bipolar Disorder

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