Bipolar Disorder Overview

Bipolar Symptoms

Bipolar disorder includes periods of mania and periods of depression.
Bipolar disorder includes periods of mania and periods of depression.
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The mood swings a bipolar patient experiences are more intense than the natural mood swings of a healthy person. The disorder typically shows up between the ages of 15 and 25 in both men and women and is characterized by periods of mania and periods of depression [source: Healthline].

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) lays out the symptoms that are common to a manic episode. These include:

  • Feeling a "high" and an unusually good mood
  • Excessive energy
  • Irritability
  • Feeling restless
  • Talking faster than usual
  • Unusually fast thoughts and ideas
  • Risky decisions (spending sprees, risky investments)
  • Easily distracted
  • Needing little sleep
  • Inflated ideas of one's abilities or importance
  • Increased sexual appetite

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a certain number of manic symptoms must be present for at least a week for those symptoms to add up to a manic episode. Manic episodes can affect people differently. For some, euphoric symptoms make it a wonderful, desirable experience. For others, mania makes them extremely irritable and easily angered. A less severe kind of mania is called hypomania, which may include a less intense form of any of the above symptoms. Hypomania does not interfere with one's daily life and relationships as much as a regular manic episode [source: MedicineNet]. If left untreated, hypomania could progress into mania.

The following is the NIMH's list of depressive episode symptoms:

  • Depressed or anxious mood
  • Despair
  • Decreased interest in pleasurable activities
  • Fatigue, sluggishness
  • Inability to focus
  • Indecisiveness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Mysterious pains
  • Suicidal thoughts

For these symptoms to add up to a depressive episode, a certain number of these symptoms must persist for at least two weeks.

It is possible for bipolar patients to actually experience manic and depressive symptoms at the same time. When this happens for at least a week, it is referred to as a mixed episode [source: DBSA]. In addition, some may experience rapid cycling which is characterized by a year of at least four episodes of mania, hypomania or depression [source: DBSA]. During a more severe manic or depressive episode, a bipolar patient can experience psychotic symptoms. These can include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (false sensations) [source: NIMH]. Because these symptoms are usually associated with schizophrenia, doctors can easily misdiagnose these bipolar patients.

The kinds of episodes patients experience determines the type of bipolar disorder they are diagnosed with. Classifications for the disorder include:

  • Bipolar I Disorder: This is the most severe form of the disorder. It includes at least one manic or mixed episode and at least one depressive episode [source: DBSA].
  • Bipolar II Disorder: Patients have had at least one depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode. With this type, a patient could experience periods of normal moods as well.
  • Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS): This classification is used for cases in which bipolar patients experience patterns that don't fall into the I or II categories.
  • Cyclothymia: This is the least severe form of the disorder. It includes two years of episodes of hypomania and milder depression.

Now that we can more easily recognize the disorder and what bipolar patients experience, let's take a look at what people think might cause this mysterious illness.