Bipolar disorder

Everyone has changes in their mood, but with bipolar disorder these changes can be extreme, overwhelming and have a big impact on your life.

*Last updated 18 March 2021

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

If you have bipolar disorder, you’re likely to have episodes of depression (feeling very low) and mania (feeling very high). You may feel well between these episodes.

Bipolar symptoms can make daily life hard and affect your relationships and work.

During a depressive episode, you may:

  • feel sad, hopeless or irritable
  • lack energy and appetite
  • lose interest in everyday activities
  • have difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • feel empty, worthless, guilty or despairing
  • have difficulty sleeping.

During a manic episode, you may:

  • feel full of energy
  • feel self-important or have lots of ideas and plans
  • be easily distracted, irritated or agitated
  • have no desire to sleep or eat
  • make decisions or say things that are out of character, risky or harmful.

Some people experience psychosis during a severe episode of depression or mania. This means you may see or hear things that aren’t there or believe things that aren’t true.

Episodes can last for several weeks or months with periods of less extreme mood in between. Depending on how you experience these moods and how severe they are, your doctor may diagnose you with a particular type of bipolar disorder. Mind has more information on these different types.

What causes bipolar disorder?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, but researchers believe a combination of factors make someone more likely to develop it. These include:

  • genetics – if you’re related to someone with bipolar disorder, you’re more likely to develop it yourself
  • chemical imbalance in the brain – too much or too little of certain chemicals could make you develop depression or mania
  • childhood trauma – abuse, neglect or bereavement in childhood can cause you to develop bipolar disorder. This could be because of the impact on your ability to regulate your emotions
  • stressful life events – a relationship breakdown or financial difficulties can be the trigger for bipolar symptoms.

You usually develop bipolar disorder before you’re 20. It’s rare to develop it after the age of 40.

Getting support

Treatment for bipolar disorder aims to reduce the severity and number of episodes of depression or mania you experience. The right treatment for you will depend on your type of bipolar, current symptoms, and your preferences and circumstances.

If you think you have bipolar disorder, start by speaking to your GP. It can help to keep a record of your moods to help you both understand your mood swings. You can download a mood scale and mood diary from the Bipolar UK website. Your GP may then refer you to a psychiatrist, who can give you a diagnosis.

There are different types of help you can get with bipolar disorder.

Talking therapy

There are different talking therapies that have been shown to work well for people with bipolar disorder.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you recognise how your feelings, thoughts, and behaviour influence each other and build strategies to change these patterns.
  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) focuses on your relationships with others and how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour are affected by your relationships and vice versa.

What you’re offered may depend on what’s available in your area and what you and your GP feel would be best for you.

Medication

There are different medications available to treat bipolar disorder. It’s likely your GP or psychiatrist offer you one of more of the following:

  • medication to prevent episodes of depression and mania. These are known as mood stabilisers
  • medication to treat the symptoms of depression and mania as they happen.

The NHS website has more information about medication for bipolar disorder.

Longer term plans

You may work with healthcare professionals to learn to monitor your mood and recognise what triggers your depression and mania. They may help you to develop a crisis or risk management plan so you know how to manage any early warning signs. This may involve friends and family, so they know how to recognise any early signs of distress and support you.

You can also help yourself by taking care of your physical health as well as your mental health and making sure that you get regular exercise, good quality sleep, and eat a healthy diet.