People who have bipolar disorder experience shifts between depression and intense energy.
These shifts aren’t your typical mood swings, however. Bipolar mood changes are more extreme and cause significant problems in patients’ work, education, social and family lives.
Bipolar disorder often runs in families and is usually diagnosed when people are in their late teens to 20s. About 1-3 percent of people experience bipolar symptoms at some time in their lives, said Dr. Justin Schoen, a Marshfield Clinic psychiatrist.
Unpredictable mood swings
Unpredictable mood swings are the hallmark of bipolar disorder.
There are two forms of bipolar disorder, and both involve some degree of mania. Only a manic episode is needed to diagnose bipolar I disorder. Bipolar II disorder involves depression and hypomania.
Manic episodes range from highly energetic but still functional behavior, called hypomania, to severe episodes requiring the patient be hospitalized. Untreated manic episodes may last for months.
Depressive symptoms range from feelings of sadness to suicide attempts. About half of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at some time in their lives, Schoen said.
Bipolar mania or hypomania symptoms include:
- Feeling elated, irritable or agitated
- Increased energy and activity
- Racing thoughts
- Increased goal-directed activity
- High risk, impulsive behaviors, like reckless sex and spending sprees
Bipolar depression symptoms include:
- Feelings of sadness, loneliness or hopelessness
- Low self-esteem
- Memory and concentration problems
- Lack of interest in usual activities
- Suicidal thoughts
Treatment and therapy for bipolar disorder
Medication and psychotherapy both are effective in treating bipolar disorder.
“One of the struggles of treatment is getting patients to take medication regularly,” Schoen said. “When patients are manic or hypomanic they feel like they don’t need medication or don’t want to lose the energetic feeling.”
Social rhythm therapy, which targets the patient’s schedule with a set bedtime, waking time and time for taking medications, can improve quality of life and reduce symptoms.
Support for families
Education about bipolar disorder helps family members and friends recognize when their loved one needs help.
If you live with someone who has bipolar disorder, you can be involved in their care by helping monitor medications and knowing how to respond to manic or hypomanic episodes as well as depressive episodes.
“The best thing family members can do is make sure someone who has bipolar disorder has an established provider to contact if there is an acute episode,” Schoen said. “Call 911 if you’re imminently concerned about your loved one’s safety.”