Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that is characterized by extreme mood changes. Individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder may experience ultimate highs and massive lows. Mania can be experienced by sufferers which is a symptom described as an extremely elevated mood.1 Bipolar disorder sufferers can experience episodes of depression that leave them very low and feel unable to overcome it.

Individuals suffering from bipolar, also known as bipolar disease, may struggle to cope with everyday life. Tasks at work, school, or maintaining friendships and/or romantic relationships can be impossible. Although there is no cure for bipolar disease, there are treatments available to those suffering from the disorder. Treatment options enable you to manage the symptoms of the disorder and live as normal a life as possible.

Facts on bipolar disorder

Around 2.8% of American adults suffer from bipolar disorder.2 It isn’t as rare as it may seem. Around 5 million people are actually diagnosed with it. On average, people begin to show bipolar disorder symptoms around the age of 25-years-old.

Bipolar disorder depression lasts a minimum of two weeks. An individual can experience a manic episode for several days or weeks at a time. A sufferer may experience multiple mood change episodes throughout the year. Not all people diagnosed with bipolar disease will experience multiple mood shift episodes. They may only have rare shifts in mood.

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

A person will experience three main symptoms when it comes to bipolar disorder. The three specific symptoms are mania, hypomania, and depression. A person suffering from mania may feel emotional highs. They can experience excitement, euphoria, impulsiveness, and be full of energy. An episode of mania can cause a person to engage in some very risky behaviors, including financial spending sprees, unprotected sexual intercourse, and drug use.

Hypomania is close in characteristics to mania. It is classed as not being as severe as mania. While mania can create issues in a person’s life, hypomania may not result in issues at school, work, or in relationships. A person suffering from hypomania can still experience noticeable mood changes.

People with bipolar disorder may experience a complex episode of depression. The episode may feature:


  • Deep or strong bouts of sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • A loss or lack of energy
  • Disinterest in activities that the person previously enjoyed
  • Extensive periods of little or too much sleep
  • Thoughts of suicide


Bipolar disorder features complex and varied symptoms. This makes bipolar disorder difficult to diagnose.

What are bipolar disorder symptoms like for women?

Bipolar disorder does not discriminate against men and women. Individuals of both sexes suffer from bipolar disorder in equal numbers. The main symptoms do differ between men and women.

Females experiencing bipolar disorder may suffer from the following symptoms:


  • Diagnosed in there 20s or 30s
  • May experience milder episodes of mania
  • Suffer from more episodes of depression rather than manic episodes
  • Experience rapid cycling, which is four or more mania and depression episodes in a year
  • Suffer from other conditions such as obesity, anxiety disorder, migraines, and thyroid disease
  • Possess a higher risk of alcohol use disorder


Compared to men, women can experience more bipolar disorder relapses. Hormonal changes such as pregnancy, menopause, and menstruation are believed to cause the alterations women experience.

What are bipolar disorder symptoms like for men?

Men can experience different symptoms than women. These symptoms may not necessarily be more severe or less severe. They are just different.


Bipolar symptoms experienced by males include:


  • Diagnosed earlier in life than women
  • Have stronger, more severe episodes
  • Experience stronger episodes of mania
  • May struggle with substance abuse problems
  • Act out during episodes of mania


One of the biggest issues that men experience compared to women is that they do not seek help when it is needed. Women are more likely to get medical help. Unfortunately, men may turn to suicide rather than medical attention.

What are the causes of bipolar disorder?

While bipolar disorder is a common mental health issue experienced by around 5 million Americans, it is still a bit of a mystery. Doctors and researchers continue to explore what causes it. They are also still researching how it develops in certain individuals and not in other people.

The possible causes of bipolar disorder include:


  • Genetics – parents may pass bipolar disorder onto their children. An individual is more likely to develop the mental health condition if their parents or siblings also suffer from it. While your parents may have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it doesn’t mean you will develop it.
  • Brain – the brain structure can impact your risks for the disorder. Abnormalities in your brain can increase your risk of developing the disease.
  • Environmental factors – The environment you live in and experience can make you susceptible to the development of bipolar disease. Outside factors contribute to the disorder and it isn’t just your mind and body that affect the development of it. Environmental factors include high levels of stress, traumatic experiences, and illness.


Individuals who develop bipolar typical suffer from a combination of factors rather than just one specific factor.

How are bipolar disorder symptoms tested?

Doctors will run multiple tests to determine whether you possess the mental health disorder. One test result alone does not indicate whether or not you have bipolar disorder.

Tests for bipolar may include:


  • A full physical exam in which blood and/or urine tests are taken.
  • A full mental health evaluation will take place in which you are referred to a mental health professional. A psychologist or psychiatrist will look for signs of bipolar disorder during a mental health evaluation.
  • You may be asked to keep a mood journal. You will keep track of your feelings and moods to give your doctor a clearer picture of your feelings and when they occur.
  • Your doctor will use a list of criteria set out by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to confirm any diagnosis.


Bipolar disorder is not curable but it is manageable through various treatments such as medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes. These treatments allow individuals to live a more normal life.

Helen M. Farrell describes the root causes and treatments for bipolar disorder.

References: Bipolar Disorder

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