Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a condition that affects your moods. Your moods can swing from one extreme to another, for example, there are spells of both deep depression and excessively high mood (mania).

Symptoms of bipolar disorder

People with bipolar disorder have periods or episodes of:

  • depression – feeling very low and lethargic
  • mania – feeling very high and overactive (less severe mania is known as hypomania)

Episodes of mania and depression often last for several weeks or months.

Depression

During a period of depression, your symptoms may include:

  • feeling sad, hopeless or irritable most of the time
  • lacking energy
  • difficulty concentrating and remembering things
  • loss of interest in everyday activities
  • feelings of emptiness or worthlessness
  • feelings of guilt and despair
  • feeling pessimistic about everything
  • self-doubt
  • being delusional, having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking
  • lack of appetite
  • difficulty sleeping
  • waking up early
  • suicidal thoughts

During an episode of depression, you may have overwhelming feelings of worthlessness. These feelings can potentially lead to thoughts of suicide.

If you're feeling suicidal or having severe depressive symptoms, contact your GP, GP out of hours services, care co-ordinator or local mental health emergency services as soon as possible.

If you want to talk to someone confidentially, call the Samaritans, free of charge, on 116 123. You can talk to them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also visit the Samaritans website.

Mania

The manic phase of bipolar disorder may include:

  • feeling very happy, elated or overjoyed
  • talking very quickly
  • feeling full of energy
  • feeling self-important
  • feeling full of great new ideas and having important plans
  • being easily distracted
  • being easily irritated or agitated
  • being delusional, having hallucinations and disturbed or illogical thinking
  • not feeling like sleeping
  • not eating
  • doing things that often have disastrous consequences – such as spending large sums of money on expensive and sometimes unaffordable items
  • making decisions or saying things that are out of character and that others see as being risky or harmful

Patterns of depression and mania

If you have bipolar disorder, you may have episodes of depression more regularly than episodes of mania, or vice versa.

Between episodes of depression and mania, you may sometimes have periods where you have a ’normal’ mood.

If your mood swings last a long time but aren't severe enough to be classed as bipolar disorder, you may be diagnosed with cyclothymia (a mild form of bipolar disorder).

Diagnosis

If your GP thinks you may have bipolar disorder, they'll usually refer you to mental health services.

There, you may see a community psychiatric nurse (CPN), a nurse specialising in mental health, or a psychiatrist (a medically qualified doctor specialising in treatment of mental health conditions).

If your illness puts you at risk of harming yourself, your GP will arrange an appointment immediately, or may admit you to hospital.

Living with bipolar disorder

The high and low phases of bipolar disorder are often so extreme that they interfere with everyday life.

There are several options for treating bipolar disorder that can make a difference. They aim to control the effects of an episode and help someone with bipolar disorder live life as normally as possible.

The following treatment options are available:

  • medication to prevent episodes of mania, hypomania (less severe mania) and depression – these are known as mood stabilisers and are taken every day on a long-term basis
  • medication to treat the main symptoms of depression and mania when they occur
  • learning to recognise the triggers and signs of an episode of depression or mania
  • psychological treatment – such as talking therapy, which can help you deal with depression, and provides advice about how to improve your relationships
  • lifestyle advice – such as doing regular exercise, planning activities you enjoy that give you a sense of achievement, as well as advice on improving your diet and getting more sleep

It's thought using a combination of different treatment methods is the best way to control bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder and pregnancy

Bipolar disorder, like all other mental health problems, can get worse during pregnancy. Specialist help is available if you need it.

Causes of bipolar disorder

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown. It's believed a number of things can trigger an episode.

Extreme stress, overwhelming problems and life-changing events are thought to contribute, as well as genetic and chemical factors.

People commonly affected by bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is fairly common.

Bipolar disorder can occur at any age. It often develops between the ages of 15 and 19 and rarely develops after 40. Men and women from all backgrounds are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder.

The pattern of mood swings in bipolar disorder varies widely between people.

For example, some people only have a couple of bipolar episodes in their lifetime and are stable in between, while others have many episodes.

Bipolar disorder and driving

If you have bipolar disorder, the condition may impair your driving.

If you've had or currently suffer from a medical condition or disability that may affect your driving you must tell the Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA).

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published December 2017

This page is due for review July 2019

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