What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic-depressive illness, is a disorder of the brain that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity and day to day functioning. Bipolar disorder is one of the most well known mental illnesses, falling behind only depression and schizophrenia. To the common man, bipolar disorder usually equates to too many mood swings or sudden shifts between extreme emotions. As portrayed in popular movies of our time. This, however, is not very accurate, in many people bipolar disorder is subtle and difficult to identify.

Bipolar disorder is a mental disorder that is characterized by episodes of “Mania” characterized by irritable, elated, and energized behaviour and episodes depression characterized by sadness, lethargy, feeling down or hopeless periods. Less severe manic periods are known as hypo-manic episodes. The manic episodes are shorter by will warrant more attention due to the severity of behavioural problems associated with the same. Depressive episodes are often longer and more frequent but may skip the attention of caregivers and treating doctors.

A common misconception is that these episodes last only a few hours to minutes. In reality, a depressive episode lasts anywhere from 6 months to 2 years and a manic (or hypomanic) episodes can last several months. Hypomanic episodes can be diagnosed when there is a marked change in mood which does not lead to impairments in functioning.

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What are the symptoms of  bipolar disorder ?

The symptoms of mania and depression are more or less opposite, with some common features.

The symptoms of a manic episode. These symptoms have to be pervasive, last at least 7 days and cause disruption to social or occupational functioning.

  •  Undue elated or high mood states.
  • High energy levels.
  • Increased activity levels.
  • A decreased need for sleep (despite sleeping for a very short time, they report no complaints).
  • Inappropriately high confidence levels increased spending and making unreal claims.
  • An increased rate of speech, with a rapid progression of thoughts.
  • Being agitated, irritable, or easily provoked.
  • Feel like their thoughts are going very fast
  • They do a lot of impulsive things, like spending a lot of money or have reckless sex.

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Similar symptoms, which do not cause a disruption in daily life are termed hypo-manic symptoms. A typical manic episode lasts around 3 months if left untreated.

The symptoms of a depressive episode include. 

  • Sad or depressed mood
  • Low energy levels and decreased activity.
  • Sleep disturbances, either too little or too much.
  • A loss of interest in activities that were previously pleasurable.
  • Poor confidence levels.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • A poor appetite
  • Negative thoughts about the future.
  • Thoughts of death and suicide.

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A few of these symptoms MUST be pervasive and last at-least two weeks in order to qualify to be  a depressive episode. Several of these symptoms may overlap in mixed episodes.

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed ?

Bipolar disorder is diagnosed by qualified mental health professionals based on diagnostic criteria put forth by the world health organization. Your doctor well conduct a detailed interview with you prior to coming to a diagnosis. You may be asked to fill in some questionnaires and/or complete some psychological tests. There are several medical disorders which may mimic bipolar disorder that will be ruled out by the diagnosing physician. You doctor may prescribe a few blood test and a brain scan to rule out the causes of bipolar disorder.

What happens after I am diagnosed with bipolar disorder ?

A diagnosis of bipolar disorder means that you have a tendency to experience debilitating mood changes. Your doctor will most likely prescribe mood stabilizers and/or antipsychotics to treat current episodes and to prevent future episodes. You will be educated about the need to watch for the early signs of relapse to accelerate the treatment process. If you do not have any episodes for a few years after you first episode your doctor may taper down and stop your medication. Psychotherapy will help deal with stressors and diminish before they lead to a full blown episode.

You need to take the effort to understand the illness that you are going through. The diagnosis is not a label and everyone experiences the disorder differently. The diagnosis is meant to help you deal with the challenges that it comes with. The diagnosis does not change who you are, nor should it come in the way of your dreams and wishes. If you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, make sure all your questions about the same are answered by your provider. Make sure all your questions about the medication are asked and clarified.

Should I be worried about taking medication for bipolar disorder ?

No! Despite what your friends and family tell you. Modern psychotropics and prescribing patterns are safe and tolerable. There are several guidelines in place to prevent or predict any problematic side effects. Make sure all your concerns are addressed by your health care provider before you start taking your medication.

An accurate diagnosis and effective treatment can help people with bipolar disorder lead normal,healthy and productive lives. Talking with a doctor is the first step for anyone who may think he/she is suffering from bipolar disorder. The doctor may then evaluate or provide a referral to a trained professional, such as a psychiatrist, who will be able to provide adequate care.

Take a quick, free screening test for bipolar disorder

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