Understanding Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric illness that affects an estimated 5.3 million adults in the United States. Also known as manic-depressive disorder, this chronic mental health condition causes drastic mood swings that range from high-energy manic episodes to low-energy bouts of depression.
Although the symptoms of bipolar disorder can vary greatly in type and severity from one person to the next, many who live with the condition find that it can be highly disruptive. In fact, it’s not unusual for untreated bipolar disorder to lead to inconsistent job or school performance, damaged relationships, financial problems, or even attempted suicide.
Fortunately, bipolar disorder is also highly treatable, as much can be done to help manage the condition from day to day to reduce or prevent manic and depressive episodes. As is often the case with any chronic illness, getting a better understanding of bipolar disorder is the first step toward leading a full, productive, and symptom-free life.
Bipolar disorder basics
Bipolar disorder is a condition defined by two things: 1) extreme mood shifts and 2) disruptive, and often problematic, changes in energy and behavior.
People with bipolar disorder experience drastic and intense emotional states, known as mood episodes. These episodes can be fully manic, hypomanic (mildly manic), or depressive. While they’re often followed by periods of normal behavior, the episodes themselves can interfere greatly with a person’s ability to function and interact normally.
That’s because the symptoms that emerge during an episode — which may range from jumpy manic energy and feelings of elation to extreme fatigue and feelings of emptiness — can have a disruptive impact on behavior, sleep, and the ability to think clearly.
Although many people with bipolar disorder experience mood episodes just once or twice a year, others experience rapid cycling, or frequent mood episodes that may occur four or more times a year.
Diagnosis by degree
While anyone who’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder demonstrates clear changes in mood, energy, and level of activity, the disease can take a variety of different forms. The four main types of bipolar disorder are:
People with this form of the disorder typically have a least one manic episode that either lasts a week or longer or produces severe symptoms that require immediate hospitalization.
Depressive episodes that last at least two weeks are also typical for bipolar I patients, as are sporadic episodes of hypomania, a milder form of mania that doesn’t include delusions. Some bipolar I patients also experience mixed episodes, or depressive and manic symptoms at the same time.
People with bipolar II disorder also experience an evident pattern of hypomanic and depressive episodes, but unlike bipolar I patients, they don’t have full-blown manic episodes.
It’s important to note that bipolar II is not a milder form of the disorder simply because it doesn’t include intense manic episodes. On the contrary, people with bipolar II often experience longer depressive episodes, increasing their risk of depression-related impairment and suicide.
Cyclothymic disorder, or cyclothymia, is a milder form of bipolar disorder that involves near-constant mood, energy, and behavioral shifts leading to frequent hypomanic and depressive episodes.
For a variety of reasons, people with recognizable bipolar symptoms often go untreated. In fact, according to one estimate, roughly half of all bipolar patients don’t receive any kind of care or treatment in any given year.
Proper diagnosis is one of the foremost obstacles to treatment. This may be because people with bipolar symptoms are more likely to seek medical care when they’re depressed, and if they don’t remember or mention their manic or hypomanic episodes, the true nature of their condition may be missed altogether. In fact, experts surmise that roughly 20% of all depression diagnoses are actually misdiagnosed cases of bipolar disorder.
For some bipolar patients, self-awareness is another major treatment obstacle: Despite the extreme shifts in mood, energy, and activity, people with bipolar disorder don’t always realize just how much their instability interferes with their lives (and the lives of those close to them), and therefore don’t seek treatment.
Bipolar disorder is a chronic, life-long condition that — if left untreated — can get substantially worse over time, leading to more frequent or severe mood episodes.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people with bipolar disorder can manage their condition and reduce or prevent mood episodes through the kind of treatment that supports mental wellness and emphasizes comprehensive, whole-person care.
Successful treatment typically begins with a full psychiatric assessment designed to uncover your mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns, then comparing your symptoms with the criteria for bipolar and related disorders put forth by the American Psychiatric Association. You may also be asked to keep a daily record of your moods, sleep patterns, and other habits to help determine the course of treatment that’s best for you.
Most bipolar treatment plans involve a combination of medication (such as mood stabilizers or antidepressants) and proven psychotherapy techniques, like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Remember, bipolar disorder doesn’t disappear or go away on its own, but seeking treatment from an experienced mental health professional can help you manage your symptoms and stay in control of your life.
If you or someone close to you has experienced symptoms of depression or mania, the team at Folsom Psychiatry Associates can help. Call our office in Folsom, California, or schedule an appointment online today.