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Breaking Down Bipolar Disorder: 12 Things You Need To Know

Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on April 27, 2022.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a type of mood disorder. People with bipolar disorder fluctuate from feeling really down and depressed to feeling super-charged or manic. This explains why some people call the disorder manic-depression. However, there are several types of bipolar disorder: bipolar I, bipolar II, cyclothymic disorder, mixed features, and rapid-cycling, all with slightly different symptoms.

These mood swings are much more severe than the normal ups and downs most people go through. In between mood swings, most people with bipolar disorder can lead relatively normal lives.

The Mood Peaks and Valleys Of Bipolar Disorder Are Severe

During a manic episode, a person may max out their credit card, impulsively quit their job, or not sleep for a few days. Caution goes out the window when it comes to sex, alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Huge debts can be rung up, jobs can be lost (or an adolescent may be kicked out of school), and many friendships burned.

Depression often follows a manic episode. During this time, the person has time to reflect on what they did while manic, which often leads to self-loathing and feelings of hopelessness or despair. Days may be spent in bed.

The time spent in each mood state (ie, mania or depression) varies depending on the type of bipolar disorder, but can range from days to months. The severity of the mood state can also vary significantly, with some people only ever experiencing mild symptoms.

Bipolar Disorder Can Run In Families

Although the exact cause is unknown, there does seem to be a genetic link, and you are more likely to get bipolar disorder if you have another family member with the condition.

Symptoms are often triggered by a stressful situation or circumstance. This may take the form of a relationship breakdown; physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; money problems; or the death of a close family member or loved one.

Symptoms are thought to be due to changes in the balance of some neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine.

Recognizing Bipolar Disorder Can Be Difficult

It can be hard to recognize bipolar disorder initially. During a manic phase, a person with bipolar disorder may be incredibly fun to be around. However, as the condition progresses, these manic episodes become more extreme.

Some people with bipolar disorder only experience slight mania and are mainly depressed. Misdiagnosis as depression is common. If an antidepressant is prescribed without a mood stabilizer, it will often catapult the person into a full-on manic state. Recognizing bipolar illness is important for treatment, as mood stabilizing agents are the best type of medication.

Is Bipolar Really Treatable?

Yes, bipolar disorder is totally treatable. For best results, medication needs to be combined with therapy sessions and the instigation of good routines.

If you have bipolar disorder, find out as much as you can about your illness so you can be a full and active participant in your own treatment. Keep a journal so you can start to recognize your own symptoms and research all your available treatment options.

Be open with close family and friends that you trust about your illness. Having a good strong support system is extremely valuable.

Mood Stabilizers Are The Most Effective Treatment For Bipolar Disorder

The most effective treatment for bipolar disorder is a mood stabilizing agent. These medications even out the troughs and the peaks of mood swings to keep you on a more even keel.

Examples of mood stabilizing agents include Depakote, Depakene, Lamictal, Lithobid, Tegretol, and Topamax. Sometimes it can take time to find the right medication. Keep working with your doctor, as the right medication at the right dose is the key to preventing mood cycling.

Additional Medications May Be Needed

If you still find yourself having bouts of depression despite being on a mood stabilizer, your doctor may add in another medicine. In the past, antidepressants were prescribed.

However, doctors have found other medications, such as aripiprazole (Abilify), haloperidol (Haldol), lurasidone (Latuda), quetiapine (Seroquel), or olanzapine (Zyprexa) give better results.

Symbyax is another option. Some medicines (eg, Latuda, Seroquel, Zyprexa) may also be prescribed occasionally to calm any residual manic episodes in people who are reasonably stable on mood stabilizers. Some may be used as the sole medication, if mood stabilizers have been tried without success.

What Side Effects Can I Expect?

Side effects of mood stabilizers differ depending on what medicine you are taking and the dosage, but most cause weight gain, drowsiness, fatigue, and may make you feel a bit sick in your stomach initially. Like most medicines, your body tolerates these side effects better as time goes on, but you should always talk to your doctor or therapist if your side effects are severe as changing medications may help.

Other medications used for bipolar disorder can also make you feel a bit sleepy or put on weight. Some may also affect your sexual performance.

How Should I Take My Medicines?

The most important thing is to take your medicine EVERY DAY.

Bipolar disorder is a life long condition, just like diabetes or asthma. Even if you feel well, a daily dose of medicine is needed to keep you well and allow you to live your life without disruption.

Many medicines used for bipolar disorder also need to be taken with food, but just check on the prescription bottle for dosing instructions.

Therapy Works Well With Medications To Make You Better, Faster

Research has shown that combining therapy with medications makes you better faster, and helps you to stay well.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy looks into any negative thought patterns you may have and challenges them in order to change your behavior.

Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy aims to improve disruptions to your biological or social rhythms (such as sleep disturbances and relationship issues).

Family focused therapy involves your family in your treatment, educating them and allowing them to support you fully.

What Can I Do To Improve My Symptoms?

Making good lifestyle choices is the best thing you can do to improve your symptoms of bipolar disorder. Late nights, lack of sleep, too much alcohol, or illicit substances can precipitate a manic or depressive episode.

Plan to do some exercise everyday. Use schedules and reminders to keep work deadlines on track and minimize stress. Keep to a regular sleep schedule and avoid alcohol, drugs, and smoking. Try to get out in the sun a little bit each day. Sunlight is the ultimate mood lifter!

Talking With Someone Else Like You

Sometimes the best person for advice about bipolar disorder is somebody else with the same condition. Sharing experiences can make you feel less alone, and a person who has been there, done that, and survived is a good source of hope and encouragement.

In the U.S., the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) helps people with bipolar disorder connect with others. The Balanced Mind Parent Network provides support and guidance from the perspective of parents and guardians of children living with mood disorders.

Finished: Breaking Down Bipolar Disorder - 12 Things You Need To Know

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  • Bipolar disorder – Causes NHS Choices.
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  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Chicago, IL.
  • Understanding Bipolar Disorder - Treatment. Web MD 2020.
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