What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness marked by extreme shifts in mood. Symptoms can include an extremely elevated mood called mania. They can also include episodes of depression. Bipolar disorder is also known as bipolar disease or manic depression.

People with bipolar disorder may have trouble managing everyday life tasks at school or work, or maintaining relationships. There’s no cure, but there are many treatment options available that can help to manage the symptoms. Learn the signs of bipolar disorder to watch for.

Bipolar disorder facts

Bipolar disorder isn’t a rare brain disorder. In fact, 2.8 percent of U.S. adults — or about 5 million people — have been diagnosed with it. The average age when people with bipolar disorder begin to show symptoms is 25 years old.

Depression caused by bipolar disorder lasts at least two weeks. A high (manic) episode can last for several days or weeks. Some people will experience episodes of mood swings several times a year, while others may experience them only rarely. Here’s what having bipolar disorder feels like for some people. bipolar disorder

Bipolar symptoms

There are three main symptoms that can occur with bipolar disorder: mania, hypomania, and depression.

While experiencing mania, a person with bipolar disorder may feel an emotional high. They can feel excited, impulsive, euphoric, and full of energy. During manic episodes, they may also engage in behavior such as:

spending sprees
unprotected sex
drug use
Hypomania is generally associated with bipolar II disorder. It’s similar to mania, but it’s not as severe. Unlike mania, hypomania may not result in any trouble at work, school, or in social relationships. However, people with hypomania still notice changes in their mood.

During an episode of depression you may experience:

deep sadness
hopelessness
loss of energy
lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed
periods of too little or too much sleep
suicidal thoughts
Although it’s not a rare condition, bipolar disorder can be hard to diagnose because of its varied symptoms. Find out about the symptoms that often occur during high and low periods.

Bipolar symptoms in women

Men and women are diagnosed with bipolar disorder in equal numbers. However, the main symptoms of the disorder may be different between the two genders. In many cases, a woman with bipolar disorder may:

be diagnosed later in life, in her 20s or 30s
have milder episodes of mania
experience more depressive episodes than manic episodes
have four or more episodes of mania and depression in a year, which is called rapid cycling
experience other conditions at the same time, including thyroid disease, obesity, anxiety disorders, and migraines
have a higher lifetime risk of alcohol use disorder
Women with bipolar disorder may also relapse more often. This is believed to be caused by hormonal changes related to menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause. If you’re a woman and think you may have bipolar disorder, it’s important for you to get the facts. Here’s what you need to know about bipolar disorder in women.

Bipolar symptoms in men

Men and women both experience common symptoms of bipolar disorder. However, men may experience symptoms differently than women. Men with bipolar disorder may:

be diagnosed earlier in life
experience more severe episodes, especially manic episodes
have substance abuse issues
act out during manic episodes
Men with bipolar disorder are less likely than women to seek medical care on their own. They’re also more likely to die by suicide.

Types of bipolar disorder

There are three main types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymia.

Bipolar I
Bipolar I is defined by the appearance of at least one manic episode. You may experience hypomanic or major depressive episodes before and after the manic episode. This type of bipolar disorder affects men and women equally.

Bipolar II
People with this type of bipolar disorder experience one major depressive episode that lasts at least two weeks. They also have at least one hypomanic episode that lasts about four days. This type of bipolar disorder is thought to be more common in women.

Cyclothymia
People with cyclothymia have episodes of hypomania and depression. These symptoms are shorter and less severe than the mania and depression caused by bipolar I or bipolar II disorder. Most people with this condition only experience a month or two at a time where their moods are stable.

When discussing your diagnosis, your doctor will be able to tell you what kind of bipolar disorder you have.

Bipolar disorder in children
Diagnosing bipolar disorder in children is controversial. This is largely because children don’t always display the same bipolar symptoms as adults. Their moods and behaviors may also not follow the standards doctors use to diagnose the disorder in adults.

Many bipolar symptoms that occur in children also overlap with symptoms from a range of other disorders that can occur in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

However, in the last few decades, doctors and mental health professionals have come to recognize the condition in children. A diagnosis can help children get treatment, but reaching a diagnosis may take many weeks or months. Your child may need to seek special care from a professional trained to treat children with mental health issues.

Like adults, children with bipolar disorder experience episodes of elevated mood. They can appear very happy and show signs of excitable behavior. These periods are then followed by depression. While all children experience mood changes, changes caused by bipolar disorder are very pronounced. They’re also usually more extreme than a child’s typical mood swing.

Manic symptoms in children

Symptoms of a child’s manic episode caused by bipolar disorder can include:

acting very silly and feeling overly happy
talking fast and rapidly changing subjects
having trouble focusing or concentrating
doing risky things or experimenting with risky behaviors
having a very short temper that leads quickly to outbursts of anger
having trouble sleeping and not feeling tired after sleep loss
Depressive symptoms in children
Symptoms of a child’s depressive episode caused by bipolar disorder can include:

moping around or acting very sad
sleeping too much or too little
having little energy for normal activities or showing no signs of interest in anything
complaining about not feeling well, including having frequent headaches or stomachaches
experiencing feelings of worthlessness or guilt
eating too little or too much
thinking about death and possibly suicide
Other possible diagnoses
Some of the behavior issues you may witness in your child could be the result of another condition. ADHD and other behavior disorders can occur in children with bipolar disorder. Work with your child’s doctor to document your child’s unusual behaviors, which will help lead to a diagnosis.

Finding the correct diagnosis can help your child’s doctor determine treatments that can help your child live a healthy life. Read more about bipolar disorder in children.