Bipolar disorder is a mental illness is often referred to as “manic-depressive illness” or “manic depression.” People with bipolar disorder experience significant mood changes, sometimes feeling very joyous and up, and other times sad and down. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), these mood swings are extreme and can cause loss of sleep, high energy levels, the inability to think clearly. Unfortunately, doctors still have not isolated the causes of bipolar disorder.

It runs in the family

Researchers have discovered that bipolar disorder often runs in families, leading them to hypothesize that the cause is genetic? However, according to NIMH, just because a family member has bipolar disorder, other family members will not necessarily have it as well. The evidence for a genetic link comes from children with a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder are much more likely to contract the illness. Doctors have studied identical twins. The study showed that even if one twin develops the disorder the other twin does not always develop the disorder despite the fact they share all the same genes.


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It's in the brain

Researchers have been studying this disorder for many decades without a sound diagnosis as to its main cause. NIMH believes that brain structure or brain function may be one of the causes of bipolar disorder. Discovering how the differences in the brain affect individual behavior helps doctors better understand bipolar disorder. It may be possible at some future date for doctors to be able to predict who may develop bipolar disorder and thus be able to prevent the illness in some people.


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Bipolar disorder "highs"

Bipolar disorder causes notably different effects often referred to as highs and lows. Highs, defined as mania, are drastic changes in mood that can affect sleep patterns, energy, and activities. Typical symptoms include

  • Feeling "wired" with signs of euphoria and abnormal, uncontrollable excitement
  • Talking fast about a lot of different things or talking excessively.
  • Having trouble sleeping but still having an abundance of energy
  • Feeling agitated, irritable, hyper, or "touchy"
  • Engaging in risky behavior such as spending a lot of money, taking physical risks, or making foolhardy business decisions


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Bipolar disorder "lows"

People with bipolar disorder suffer from a certain type of depression called "bipolar depression." When in this phase, they may have no interest in activities they once enjoyed, have very little energy, sleep to much or not at all, eat too much or too little, have difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and have suicidal thoughts.  


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Mixing it up

Some people suffer from "mixed episodes," wherein their mood has both manic and depressive symptoms. During such an episode, individuals can feel extremely energized while simultaneously feeling sad or hopeless. NIMH labels these mood swings hypomania, a less harsh form of mania. The person experiencing a mixed episode usually does not feel that anything is wrong, but to family and friends notice the changes in activity levels. NIMH recommends immediate treatment for these episodes; they can lead to more severe mania or depression.


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Not restricted to adults

A child or teenager with bipolar disorder may have slightly different symptoms than an adult with the condition, although some remain the same, such as depression. Children and teens often appear to be more irritable than sad. Youngsters may also complain of headaches and stomach aches when no physical cause can be found.


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Other illnesses may be connected

Because bipolar disorder has symptoms that are similar to other diseases -- substance abuse, eating disorders, or anxiety -- doctors often have a difficult time making a true diagnosis. Researchers at NIHM have found that those with bipolar disorder are at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, migraines, thyroid disease and other physical maladies. Some even show signs of psychosis including hallucinations or delusions.


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No magic pill

Doctors prescribe various medications to treat bipolar disorder. These include mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants. As of yet,  there is no magic pill. If you or your loved one is taking medication for bipolar disorder, be sure to discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor and pharmacist, and report any side effects to the doctor immediately, so a different dose or medication can be assigned. Doctors also warn people with bipolar not to stop taking their medicine without consultation, as this can make symptoms worse.


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Talking can help

Medication is usually not sufficient to treat bipolar disorder, and NIMH highly recommends therapy as a supplementary treatment. Therapy assists not only the person with bipolar disorder but also those without it who also deal with the condition on a regular basis: family, friends, and co-workers. Family-focused therapy helps those closely connected to the person with bipolar disorder create a healthy support structure.


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Finding the right treatment

The type of treatment for bipolar can be different for each person because each person's illness is different. Symptoms may be the same but circumstances, family, and support from others differ. Your family doctor is a good resource and can be the first stop in searching for help. There are several services you can contact for further information.

For help finding local treatment centers call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). They also provide general information on mental health. The National Institute for Mental Health's website has an informative Help for Mental Illness page. If you or your loved one needs immediate help, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  


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