Fact Sheet 5: Bipolar Disorder
This leaflet is for anyone who wants to know more about bipolar disorder (sometimes called bipolar affective disorder or manic depression). It is especially helpful for anyone who has bipolar disorder, their friends and relatives. Many patients prefer the term ‘bipolar’ rather than ‘bipolar disorder’ as they have an illness not a disorder.
This leaflet describes:
- the disorder
- some of the problems it can create
- ways of coping
- some of the treatments available
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder used to be called ‘manic depression’. As the older name suggests, someone with bipolar disorder will have severe mood swings. These usually last several weeks or months and are far beyond what most of us experience. They are:
Low or 'depressive' feelings of intense depression and despair
High or 'manic' feelings of extreme happiness and elation
Mixed for example, depressed mood with the restlessness and over activity of a manic episode
How common is bipolar disorder?
About 1 in every 100 adults has bipolar disorder at some point in their life. It usually starts between the ages of 15 to 19 - and it rarely starts after the age of 40. Men and women are affected equally.
What types are there?
- If you have had at least one high or manic episode, which has lasted for longer than one week.
- You may only have manic episodes, although most people with Bipolar I also have periods of depression.
- Untreated, a manic episode will generally last 3 to 6 months.
- Depressive episodes last rather longer - 6 to 12 months without treatment.
- If you have had more than one episode of severe depression, but only mild manic episodes – these are called ‘hypomania’.
- If you have more than four mood swings in a 12 month period. This affects around 1 in 10 people with bipolar disorder, and can happen with both types I and II.
- The mood swings are not as severe as those in full bipolar disorder, but can be longer. This can develop into full bipolar disorder.
What causes bipolar disorder?
We don't understand this well, but research suggests that:
- Bipolar disorder runs in families - it seems to have more to do with genes than with upbringing.
- There may be a physical problem with the brain systems which control our moods - this is why bipolar disorder can often be controlled with medication.
- But - mood swings can be brought on by stressful experiences or physical illness.
What does it feel like?
This depends on which way your mood has swung.
The feeling of depression is something we all experience from time to time. It can even help us to recognise and deal with problems in our lives. In clinical depression or bipolar disorder, the feeling of depression is much worse. It goes on for longer and makes it difficult or impossible to deal with the normal things of life. If you become depressed, you will notice some of these changes:
- feelings of unhappiness that don't go away
- feeling that you want to burst into tears for no reason
- losing interest in things
- being unable to enjoy things
- feeling restless and agitated
- losing self-confidence
- feeling useless, inadequate and hopeless
- feeling more irritable than usual
- thinking of suicide
- can’t think positively or hopefully
- finding it hard to make even simple decisions
- difficulty in concentrating
- losing appetite and weight
- difficulty in getting to sleep
- waking earlier than usual
- feeling utterly tired
- going off sex
- difficulty in starting or completing things – even everyday chores
- crying a lot – or feeling like you want to cry, but not being able to
- avoiding contact with other people
You have an intense sense of well-being, energy and optimism. It can be so strong that it affects your thinking and judgment. You may believe strange things about yourself, make bad decisions, and behave in embarrassing, harmful and - occasionally - dangerous ways.
Like depression, it can make it difficult or impossible to deal with day-to-day life. Mania can badly affect both your relationships and your work. When it isn't so extreme, it is called 'hypomania'.
If you become manic, you may notice that you are:
- very happy and excited
- irritated with other people who don't share your optimistic outlook
- feeling more important than usual
- full of new and exciting ideas
- moving quickly from one idea to another
- hearing voices that other people can't hear
- full of energy
- unable or unwilling to sleep
- more interested in sex
- making plans that are grandiose and unrealistic
- very active, moving around very quickly
- behaving unusually
- talking very quickly - other people may find it hard to understand what you are talking about
- making odd decisions on the spur of the moment, sometimes with disastrous consequences
- recklessly spending your money
- over-familiar or recklessly critical with other people
- less inhibited in general
If you are in the middle of a manic episode for the first time, you may not realise that there is anything wrong – although your friends, family or colleagues will. You may even feel annoyed if someone tries to point this out to you. You increasingly lose touch with day-to-day issues – and with other people's feelings.
If an episode of mania or depression becomes very severe, you may develop psychotic symptoms.
- In a manic episode - these will tend to be grandiose beliefs about yourself - that you are on an important mission or that you have special powers and abilities.
- In a depressive episode - that you are uniquely guilty, that you are worse than anybody else, or even that you don't exist.
As well as these unusual beliefs, you might experience hallucinations - when you hear, smell, feel or see something, but there isn't anything (or anybody) there to account for it.
Some people can get back to normal in between their mood swings. But this is not so for many people with bipolar disorder. You may continue to experience mild depressive symptoms and problems in thinking, even when you seem to be better.
Bipolar disorder may result in you having to stop driving for a while.
There are some things you can try to control mood swings so that they stop short of becoming full-blown episodes of mania or depression. These are mentioned below, but medication is still often needed to:
keep your mood stable (prophylaxis)
treat a manic or depressive episode
Medications to stabilise mood
There are several mood stabilisers, some of which are also used to treat epilepsy or schizophrenia. Your psychiatrist may need to use more than one medication to control mood swings effectively.
Lithium has been used as a mood stabiliser for 50 years – but how it works is still not clear. It can be used to treat both manic and depressive episodes.
Treatment with Lithium should be started by a psychiatrist. The difficulty is getting the level of Lithium in the body right – too low and it won't work, too high and it becomes toxic. So, you will need regular blood tests in the first few weeks to make sure that you are getting the right dose. Once the dose is stable, your doctor can prescribe your Lithium and arrange the regular blood tests.
The amount of Lithium in your blood is very sensitive to how much, or how little, water there is in your body. If you become dehydrated, the level of Lithium in your blood will rise, and you will be more likely to get side-effects, or even toxic effects. So, it’s important to:
- drink plenty of water – more in hot weather or when you are active
- be careful with tea and coffee - they increase the amount of water you pass in your urine
It can take three months or longer for Lithium to work properly. It's best to carry on taking the tablets, even if your mood swings continue during this time.
When to start a mood stabiliser
After just one episode, it’s difficult to predict how likely you are to have another. You may not want to start medication at this stage – unless your episode was very severe and disruptive.
If you have a second episode, there is a strong chance of further episodes – so most psychiatrists would usually recommend a mood stabiliser at this point.
For how long should a mood stabiliser be continued?
For at least two years after one episode of bipolar disorder, and for up to five years if there have been:
- frequent previous relapses
- psychotic episodes
- alcohol or substance misuse
- continuing stress at home or at work
If you continue to have troublesome mood swings, you may need to continue medication for longer.
In between episodes of mania or depression, psychological treatments can be helpful. Treatment usually involves around 16 one-hour sessions over a period of 6 to 9 months.
Psychological treatment should include:
- psychoeducation – finding out more about bipolar disorder
- mood monitoring – helps you to pick up when your mood is swinging
- mood strategies – to help you stop your mood swinging into a full-blown manic or depressive episode
- help to develop general coping skills
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depression.
You should discuss any pregnancy plans with your psychiatrist. Together, you can arrange how to manage your mood during the pregnancy and for the first few months after the baby arrives.
If you are pregnant, it's best to discuss with your psychiatrist whether or not to stop Lithium. Although Lithium is safer in pregnancy than the other mood stabilisers, the risk to the baby needs to be weighed against the risk of you becoming depressed or manic. The risk is greatest during the first three months of pregnancy. Lithium is safe after the 26th week of pregnancy, although you should not breastfeed your baby if you are taking Lithium.
Stopping the mood swings - helping yourself
Learn how to recognise the signs that your mood is swinging out of control so you can get help early. You may be able to avoid both full-blown episodes and hospital admissions. Keeping a mood diary can help to identify the things in your life that help you – and those that don't.
Find out as much as you can about your illness - and what help there is.
Try to avoid particularly stressful situations - these can trigger off a manic or depressive episode. It's impossible to avoid all stress, so it may be helpful to learn ways of handling it better. You can do relaxation training with CDs or DVDs, join a relaxation group, or seek advice from a clinical psychologist.
- Depression or mania can cause great strain on friends and family - you may have to rebuild some relationships after an episode.
- It's helpful if you have at least one person that you can rely on and confide in. When you are well, try explaining the illness to people who are important to you. They need to understand what happens to you - and what they can do for you.
Try to balance your life and work, leisure, and relationships with your family and friends. If you get too busy you may bring on a manic episode.
Make sure that you have enough time to relax and unwind. If you are unemployed, think about taking a course, or doing some volunteer work that has nothing to do with mental illness.
Reasonably intense exercise for 20 minutes or so, three times a week, seems to improve mood.
Make sure you regularly do things that you enjoy and that give your life meaning.
Continue with medication
You may want to stop your medication before your doctor thinks it is safe – unfortunately this often leads to another mood swing. Talk it over with your doctor and your family when you are well.
Have your say in how you are treated
If you have been admitted to hospital for bipolar disorder, you may want to write an ‘advance directive’ with your doctor and family to say how you want to be treated if you become ill again.
Advice for family and friends
Mania or depression can be distressing – and exhausting - for family and friends.
Dealing with a mood episode
It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is very depressed. They see everything in a negative light and may not be able to say what they want you to do. They can be withdrawn and irritable, but at the same time need your help and support. They may be worried, but unwilling or unable to accept advice. Try to be as patient and understanding as possible.
At the start of a manic mood swing, the person will appear to be happy, energetic and outward-going - the ‘life and soul’ of any party or heated discussion. However, the excitement of such situations will tend to push their mood even higher. So try to steer them away from such situations. You can try to persuade them to get help, or get them information about the illness and self-help.
Practical help is very important – and much appreciated. Make sure that your relative or friend is able to look after themselves properly.
Helping your loved ones stay well
In between mood episodes, find out more about bipolar disorder. It may be helpful to go with your friend or loved one to any appointments with the GP or psychiatrist.
Staying well yourself
Give yourself space and time to recharge your batteries. Make sure that you have some time on your own, or with trusted friends who will give you the support you need. If your relative or friend has to go into hospital, share the visiting with someone else. You can support your friend or relative better if you are not too tired.
Dealing with an emergency
- In severe mania, a person can become hostile, suspicious and verbally or physically explosive.
- In severe depression, a person may start to think of suicide.
If you find that they are:
- seriously neglecting themselves by not eating or drinking
- behaving in a way that places them, or others, at risk
- talking of harming or killing themselves
Get medical help immediately.
Keep the name of a trusted professional (and their telephone number) for any such emergency. A short admission to hospital may sometimes be needed.
Looking after children
If you become manic or depressed, you may temporarily not be able to look after your children properly. Your partner, or another family member, will need to organise the children's care while you are unwell. It can be helpful to make plans for this in advance when you are well.
You may find that your child may feel anxious and confused when you are not well. If they cannot express their distress in words, toddlers can become difficult or clingy, and older children will show it in other ways.
Children will find it helpful if the adults around them are sensitive, understanding, and can respond to their difficulties in a calm, consistent and supportive way. Adults can help them to understand why their parent is behaving differently. Questions will need to be answered calmly; factually and in language they can understand. They will feel better if they can keep to their usual daily routine.
Explaining bipolar disorder to children
Older children may worry that they have caused the illness – that it is their fault. They need to be reassured that they are not to blame, but also to be shown what they can do to help. When an older child takes responsibility for caring for a sick parent, they will need particular understanding and practical support.
CLMC - Fact Sheet
- Fact Sheet: 1 Depression and Alcohol
- Fact Sheet 2: Teenagers and their parents
- Fact Sheet 3: Other problems of teenagers
- Fact Sheet 4: Tips on helping Teenagers
- Fact Sheet 5: Bipolar Disorder
- Fact Sheet 6: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in adults
- Fact Sheet 7: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Fact Sheet: 8 Depression
- Fact Sheet 9: Postnatal Depression
- Fact Sheet 10 - Schizophrenia