Up until the mid-1990s, the illness now known as bipolar disorder was called manic depression. Many people with this illness still prefer to use the name manic depression because some believe that the old name more accurately describes the symptoms they experience.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness that is characterised by extreme changes in mood, from deep depression to a form of euphoria called mania. Some people switch very rapidly between depression and mania, whilst other people will experience longer episodes of either depression or mania before switching to another type of episode. Additionally, some people experience mixed episodes, which means that they are both manic and depressed at the same time. As well as mania and depression, there is also a mood state called hypomania which is a milder form of mania.
As many as 1 in 100 people will experience the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Men and women are equally affected, although women tend to experience more depressive episodes than men and men experience more manic episodes than women. The illness usually begins in late adolescence or early adulthood, but there is an increased risk of developing the disorder in mid to late life.
Some people with bipolar disorder experience psychosis during severe episodes of mania and depression. Psychotic symptoms include hallucinations and delusions.
Different Types of Bipolar Disorder
There are three main types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder and rapid cycling bipolar disorder.
Bipolar I disorder is the classic and most severe form of the illness. Someone with bipolar I disorder will experience manic, depressive and mixed episodes of illness.
Bipolar II disorder is a less severe form of the illness. The difference between this and bipolar I disorder is that in bipolar II disorder, the person doesn’t experience manic episodes, but instead has episodes of hypomania that alternate with depressive episodes.
Rapid cycling bipolar disorder affects 10-20% of people with the illness. To receive a diagnosis of rapid cycling bipolar disorder, a person must experience four or more hypomanic, manic, depressive or mixed episodes in a 12 month period, although people with this type may experience monthly, weekly or even daily shifts in mood. More women than men experience this type of bipolar disorder.
Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
Symptoms during the manic phase of illness can include:
- Increased activity, energy and a feeling of restlessness;
- Feeling in an extremely good, high mood;
- Extreme irritability;
- Unrealistic beliefs in abilities and powers – such as thinking you’re superhuman and can achieve more than mere mortals;
- Feeling very easily distracted; having poor concentration;
- Needing little sleep;
- Talking very fast;
- Having racing thoughts;
- Jumping from one idea to another very quickly;
- Going on spending sprees;
- Behaving provocatively or aggressively;
- Being reckless;
- Having an increased sexual drive;
- Having poor judgment; and
- Denying that anything is wrong.
Often during an episode of mania, the person may not be aware of the dramatic changes in their behaviour. When the episode is over, they can be shocked, upset and embarrassed by the things that they have done and said.
Symptoms during the depressive phase of illness can include:
- A long lasting depressed or anxious mood;
- Feeling hopeless;
- Feeling guilty, helpless or worthless;
- Losing interest in activities that usually brought feelings of pleasure or enjoyment;
- Decreased energy or feeling slowed down;
- Having difficulty concentrating;
- Having difficulty remembering things;
- Having difficulty making decisions;
- Feeling restless or irritable;
- Having difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much;
- Losing your appetite or eating too much (comfort eating);
- Thinking about death or suicide; and
- Making suicide attempts.
For most people with bipolar disorder, depression is the most commonly experienced symptom, interspersed with episodes of mania or hypomania.
An Overview of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder can be a severe and debilitating illness. Many people with the illness struggle with it for the duration of their lives, whilst others make recoveries between episodes and are able to lead normal lives. Thankfully, medication means that most people experience some improvement in the severity of their symptoms.
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