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Bipolar disorder is characterised by experiencing extreme moods. Learn about the signs and symptoms, the different types of bipolar disorder and what to do if you think you might have symptoms.

This can help if:

  • you’re worried because you experience extreme changes in mood
  • you have periods of time when you do things you regret
  • you sometimes feel ‘invincible’ and at other times depressed.
Headless sitting on step

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is when people experience serious extremes of mood, to the point where their moods interfere with their daily life. If you have bipolar disorder, your mood is likely to go through extreme highs (known as mania or hypomania) and lows (known as depression). However, what you experience during each mood, and how quickly or slowly you move between high and low moods, is different for everyone. There are also different types of bipolar disorder.

People with bipolar disorder can experience moods that don’t necessarily make sense in the context of what’s going on around them. The moods can be very disruptive and make it difficult to function in day-to-day life.

When you’re experiencing a high or low mood with bipolar disorder, one specific mood extreme can last for weeks or even months.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Someone with bipolar disorder will experience mood changes ranging between manic and depressive episodes.

It’s also common to feel or experience:

  • high self-esteem
  • increased energy
  • a reduced need for sleep
  • an increase in goal-directed behaviour (e.g. staying up all night to get something done)
  • racing thoughts
  • irritability
  • agitation
  • increased sexual activity
  • excessive spending.

During a manic episode, people can also become out of control, feel very anxious, and become frustrated and angry. They can become reckless without realising it, engage in dangerous behaviour and take huge risks. Mania can also cause psychotic thoughts and actions.

When experiencing a depressed episode, it’s common to feel or experience:

  • loss of interest in activities
  • changes in appetite
  • weight loss or gain
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • a loss of energy
  • difficulties with concentration
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt.

What causes bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is caused by a combination of things, including your genes, and it can be brought on by stress, certain brain chemicals and/or your environment. However, significant use of alcohol and other drugs may trigger symptoms of the disorder or worsen existing symptoms.

People with bipolar disorder are more likely to engage in risky behaviour such as drinking heavily or taking drugs. It’s also been known for people with bipolar disorder to self-medicate and to try and regulate their extreme moods using drugs or alcohol.

What are the different types of bipolar disorder?

There are several different types of bipolar disorder, and the type you’re diagnosed with often depends on your individual experience of mood changes, including how quickly your mood changes.

  • Bipolar I. People with bipolar I usually experience extreme highs (mania) that may be long-lasting, plus depressive episodes, and possibly psychotic episodes.
  • Bipolar II. People with bipolar II usually experience highs that are less extreme than mania (called hypomania) and only last for a few hours or days. They also have depressive episodes. Between extreme moods, they might have times when their mood is relatively normal.
  • Cyclothymic disorder. A milder form of bipolar in which moods are not as extreme.
  • Bipolar disorder otherwise not specified. The mood changes that are experienced by people with bipolar disorder are different for everyone; this diagnosis is for those people who don’t fit into the above three categories.

What to do if this sounds like you?

Bipolar disorder can only be diagnosed by your GP or mental health professional. Medication is usually a large part of a successful treatment plan for bipolar disorder, in conjunction with other treatments such as therapy and self-help strategies. Often a diagnosis of bipolar disorder takes time, as your moods will need to be monitored over a period of weeks or months. If you can relate to some of the signs and symptoms described above, make sure you seek help. The good news is that bipolar disorder can be managed with the right treatment and support.

What can I do now?