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Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another. This blog post hopes to provide you with more information on the disorder, its diagnosis and treatment methods.

Bipolar disorder is fairly common and statistics show that 1 in every 100 adults will be diagnosed with the condition at some point in their life. Bipolar disorder can occur at any age, although it often develops between the ages of 15 and 19 and rarely develops after 40. Men and women from all backgrounds are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme mood swings. These range from extreme highs (mania) to extreme lows (depression) and symptoms of bipolar will depend on which mood you're experiencing.

During a period of depression, symptoms may include:

  • Feeling sad

  • Hopeless or irritable most of the time

  • Lacking energy

  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering things

  • Loss of interest in everyday activities

  • Feelings of emptiness or worthlessness

  • Feelings of guilt and despair

  • Feeling pessimistic about everything

  • Self-doubt

  • Being delusional

  • Having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking

  • Lack of appetite

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Waking up early

  • Suicidal thoughts

The manic phase of bipolar disorder may include:

  • Feeling very happy, elated or overjoyed

  • Talking very quickly

  • Feeling full of energy

  • Feeling self-important

  • Feeling full of great new ideas and having important plans

  • Being easily distracted

  • Being easily irritated or agitated

  • Being delusional

  • Having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking

  • Not feeling like sleeping

  • Not eating

  • Doing things that often have disastrous consequences – such as spending large sums of money on expensive and sometimes unaffordable items

  • Making decisions or saying things that are out of character and that others see as being risky or harmful

The pattern of mood swings in bipolar disorder varies widely between people. For example, some people only have a couple of bipolar episodes in their lifetime and are stable in between, while others have many episodes. Some people may also experience:

Rapid cycling – where a person with bipolar disorder repeatedly swings from a high to low phase quickly without having a "normal" period in between

Mixed state – where a person with bipolar disorder experiences symptoms of depression and mania together; for example, overactivity with a depressed mood.

If your mood swings last a long time but aren't severe enough to be classed as bipolar disorder, you may be diagnosed with cyclothymia (a mild form of bipolar disorder).

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, although it's believed there are a number of factors that work together to make a person more likely to develop the condition. These are thought to be a complex mix of physical, environmental and social factors.

Chemical imbalance in the brain - Bipolar disorder is widely believed to be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. The chemicals responsible for controlling the brain's functions are called neurotransmitters and include noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. There's some evidence that if there's an imbalance in the levels of one or more neurotransmitters, a person may develop some symptoms of bipolar disorder. For example, there's evidence that episodes of mania may occur when levels of noradrenaline are too high, and episodes of depression may be the result of noradrenaline levels becoming too low.

Genetics - It's also thought bipolar disorder is linked to genetics, as the condition seems to run in families. The family members of a person with the condition have an increased risk of developing it themselves. However, no single gene is responsible for bipolar disorder. Instead, a number of genetic and environmental factors are thought to act as triggers.

Triggers - A stressful circumstance or situation often triggers the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Examples include: physical illness, sleep disturbances and overwhelming problems in everyday life – such as problems with money, work or relationships

It is common for people with bipolar to be initially diagnosed with clinical depression before having a future manic episode (sometimes years later) - after which the diagnosis may change. Diagnosis is often made following an assessment with a psychiatrist - which your GP will refer you to. It is therefore important that if you have any concerns that you may be experiencing bipolar, you seek help straight away as diagnosis, and therefore treatment, can take time.

The high and low phases of bipolar disorder are often so extreme that they interfere with everyday life.

However, there are several options for treating bipolar disorder that can make a difference. They aim to control the effects of an episode and help someone with bipolar disorder live life as normally as possible.

The following treatment options are available:

  • Medication to prevent episodes of mania, hypomania (less severe mania) and depression – these are known as mood stabilisers and are taken every day on a long-term basis.

  • Medication to treat the main symptoms of depression and mania when they occur.

  • Learning to recognise the triggers and signs of an episode of depression or mania.

  • Psychological treatment – such as talking therapy, which can help you deal with depression, and provides advice about how to improve your relationships.

  • Lifestyle advice – such as doing regular exercise, planning activities you enjoy that give you a sense of achievement, as well as advice on improving your diet and getting more sleep.

It's thought using a combination of different treatment methods is the best way to control bipolar disorder.


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