Applied Psychology

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Jul 22, 2021 | By Saranne Durham
What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar is a mental disorder that affects approximately 45 million people worldwide. It causes unusual and often unpredictable shifts in mood, energy levels and the ability to concentrate. As a result, it impacts someone’s ability to carry out daily activities. It is characterised by manic, hyper manic and depressive episodes that are usually separated by periods of normal moods. Bipolar is a lifelong condition, however there are ways to manage it successfully.

“Bipolar is a life long condition that can be managed successfully.”

What is a Manic Episode?

Manic episodes are extreme “up” moods and last for at least a week. During which someone is usually highly energised with increased activity levels. Some people also experience dissociation and the inability to rationally evaluate a situation. This means that manic episodes can be more life-endangering than depressive ones.

5 Potential Signs of a Manic Episode

  1. Increased energy and activity levels.
  2. Uncharacteristically agitated, aggressive or irritable; which could be accompanied by feeling jumpy or “live-wired”.
  3. Needing less sleep while feeling more energetic.
  4. Unusually impulsive or increased risky behaviour.
  5. Exaggerated self-confidence and well-being. Often resulting in feelings of euphoria and an unrealistic sense of superiority.

What is a Hypomanic Episode?

Hypomanic episodes are less intense manic periods. Symptoms are less severe and tend to last for only about 4 days in a row instead of a week. During hypomanic episodes someone could become more productive than usual and symptoms usually don’t interfere with daily functioning. In fact, symptoms can result in better work and/or creative output.

What is a Depressive Episode?

During a depressive episode a person feels very down (depressed) or sad, indifferent or hopeless. A major depressive episode is diagnosed when someone has had continuous symptoms for at least two weeks.

5 Common Signs of Depressive Episodes

  1. Intense feelings of sad, despair, guilt, hopelessness or worthlessness.
  2. Low energy or fatigued.
  3. Change in appetite and cravings which can cause weight fluctuations.
  4. Loss of interest in previously enjoyable situations erg: Socialising, hobby or exercise.
  5. Aches or pains that seem to have no obvious physical causes.

How to Diagnose Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is diagnosed by having a professional, usually a psychiatrist, assess you. During the assessment your medical and behaviour background will be discussed. This will give the psychiatrist a better understanding of your symptoms as well as events (possible triggers) leading up to them. The psychiatrist will also ask about family history as bipolar has been seen to run in families. Depending on your symptoms the psychiatrist may ask for tests to be carried out, for example a thyroid test. Certain drugs or medical conditions, like Cushing’s disease, can induce bipolar. Therefore, you may be assessed for these ahead of a firm diagnosis.

Bipolar can be tricky to diagnose because it is cyclical in nature. Sometimes manic episodes are mild or infrequent and thus go undetected. The result of which is that often bipolar is mistaken for “just depression”. Additionally, many people with bipolar have added psychiatric challenges, such as anxiety which can further complicate diagnosis.

Types of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar used to be called manic-depressive illness or manic depression. There are three recognised bipolar disorders. All three involve mood, energy and activity level changes.

The 3 Types of Bipolar Disorders

  1. Bipolar I: A person has a diagnosis of at least one major manic episode. Most people have neutral mood periods and some also experience hypomanic or depressive episodes.
  2. Bipolar II: Requires someone to have at least one major depressive episode with one or more hypomanic episodes. The hypomanic episode is often pleasurable and enables an increased work performance, after which the person returns to normal functioning. This results in most sufferers seeking help for depressive episodes and sometimes being unaware of their hypomanic episode(s).
  3. Cyclothymic Disorder: Is characterised by “mood swings” whereby a person cycles between many periods of hypomanic and depressive symptoms. Symptoms are less severe than those of bipolar I and II; but have lasted 2 years without stopping for more than 2 months at a time.

Where does Bipolar come from?

The exact causes of bipolar disorders are unknown. Experts believe that it is very often a result of chemical imbalances in the brain. Brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline, control how the brain functions.

There are a number of factors which can lead to a brain having a chemical imbalance. It is thought that bipolar has a genetic link, as it has been seen to run in families. Environmental factors and triggers also seem to play a part in if someone develops a bipolar disorder. Thus, bipolar can be triggered by a stressful event, major life change or overwhelming daily life problems as well as physical illnesses.

Some medications as well as substance use, like drugs and alcohol, could also cause a bipolar vulnerability. It is thought that this is because they can impact the chemical balances within someone’s brain.

Bipolar Disorder Treatments

Bipolar is a lifelong condition. While there is no cure, there are ways to manage it successfully. For most people with bipolar, treatment involves a combination of medication and talk therapy. Given that the disorder can affect each person’s functionality differently, a treatment care path will usually be tailored to the individual.

Thus, ideal management of all bipolar disorders requires professional assistance. Committing to work with professionals on a long-term basis most often results in successful treatment and better prevention of relapses. Talk therapy can be especially helpful in helping someone deal with the stress of mood-swings. As well as understanding their fluctuations and managing possible triggers.

What happens when Bipolar goes untreated?

As bipolar is a lifelong mental condition, left untreated it is likely to have a negative impact across someone’s life. Overtime, it can even derail someone’s life to an extent where they are unable to function.

5 Possible Physical Risks of Untreated Bipolar

  1. Memory loss.
  2. Lack of Concentration.
  3. Lack of Attention.
  4. Overall functionality, particularly in relation to organising, planning, assessing and impulse control.
  5. Suicide.

5 Likely Social Challenges of Untreated Bipolar

  1. Self “medication” using drugs or alcohol.
  2. Legal Issues.
  3. Financial Issues.
  4. Problems at work or school.
  5. Inability to maintain healthy relationships and sustain good friendships

Identifying Bipolar Disorder

Some researchers have put forward that those with bipolar tend to be highly intelligent. Interesting is how this can practically play out.

Historically, there has been a link between creativity and bipolar disorder. Manic and hypomanic episodes can result in highly creative periods which can result in someone with bipolar being very creative. Additionally, these periods of high creativity can be emulated when someone is more balanced which can result in ongoing creativity.

Additional Possible Life Traits

  • High focus on learning.
  • Travel more than average.
  • Enjoy working, not just because they have to.

Getting Help for Bipolar Disorder

When it comes to non-medical interventions for bipolar there are some great options. You can choose between various types of talk therapies. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Additionally, having a life coach work alongside you can also be very helpful. This is because coaching has a focus on solutions. It also assists with maintaining focus to achieve realistic goals, while working within your own strengths and ability range.

Do you have an interest in helping those with lifelong mental conditions live successful and happily balanced lives? Then consider enrolling in a psychology degree at the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP). Alternatively, explore the SACAP coaching qualifications. These have the added advantage of being enhanced with psychology-based modules. Enquire here for an appointment to explore your course options.

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