6 important facts to know about bipolar disorder

Everyone has ups and downs. But that’s very different from the dramatic shifts in mood, energy and activity levels that come with bipolar disorder.1

This mental health condition affects approximately 2.8% of adults in the United States.1 But it's commonly misunderstood. According to a survey of U.S. adults ages 18 to 60 with bipolar I disorder, 81% agreed that they felt like no one understands what they’re going through.2

It’s important to be able to identify the different types of bipolar disorder, either in yourself or a loved one. That’s because, with treatment, people with bipolar disorder can truly thrive.

It starts with knowing the facts. Below are 6 important things to know about bipolar disorder, according to experts.

1. Bipolar disorder can be genetic

“Many people don’t realize that bipolar disorder can run in families,” says Faisal Tai, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist who is the president of Psychiatry of Texas and the CEO of PsychPlus. Data shows that people with specific genes may have a higher chance of developing bipolar disorder, Dr. Tai explains.

In fact bipolar disorder is one of the most heritable mental health conditions.3 Being mistreated in childhood is another possible contributor of developing bipolar disorder later in life. This is particularly true when the mistreatment includes emotional abuse or neglect.4

2. Mood swings aren't the only sign

The hallmark sign of bipolar disorder is extreme mood swings. A person may have depression, where they feel persistent sadness or hopelessness — then later they may go into a state of mania, where they are elated and euphoric in a way that interferes with their functioning.5

But bipolar disorder has other symptoms beyond high-to-low moods, Dr. Tai emphasizes. “Bipolar disorder can also include agitation and impulsive behavior,” he says. Examples of impulsive behavior can include excessive spending, substance abuse and hypersexuality.5

Bipolar disorder may also show up differently from person to person. For example, one person may go on shopping sprees while in a manic phase, while another person may gamble, says Debra M. Kawahara, Ph.D., the associate dean of Academic Affairs and a distinguished professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University.

When experiencing a depressive stage, someone with bipolar disorder may have low energy. Or they may be unable to get out of bed for days at a time. “The symptoms can be very different,” Dr. Kawahara says.

But symptoms of bipolar disorder all have one thing in common — the behaviors are recurring and can’t be explained by outside factors, she adds.

3. There are several types of bipolar disorders

When people think about bipolar disorder, they often think of bipolar I. But there are actually 3 main types of bipolar:6

  • Bipolar I. To be diagnosed with bipolar I, a person needs to have had a manic episode for at least 7 days. Or they must have shown symptoms of mania that are severe enough to require immediate medical intervention. Usually they experience depressive episodes as well, and these typically last at least 2 weeks.
  • Bipolar II. With this version of bipolar, people experience a less intense form of mania called hypomania, along with a pattern of depressive episodes.
  • Cyclothymic disorder. In this case, recurring hypomania and depressive symptoms are either less severe or last for shorter periods of time.

4. It's okay to ask for an evaluation

If you are experiencing any symptoms of bipolar disorder but aren’t sure what’s going on, it’s important to see a medical professional.

Those people could be a psychiatrist, psychologist, your primary care provider or a licensed clinical social worker. Any of those professionals can do a diagnostic evaluation to figure out if your symptoms may be caused by a clinical disorder, Dr. Kawahara explains. But she advises seeing your regular health care provider first to rule out any physical health problems.

What to expect at an evaluation

If you do see a mental health professional, what can you expect during an evaluation? Dr. Kawahara explains that the process will vary based on the provider. But generally they will ask questions about your family history.

The mental health provider will also want to know when your symptoms started occurring. Some providers may reach out to people you interact with at home or work — with your permission, of course. That may help provide a more complete picture of your behaviors and emotions, Dr. Kawahara explains.

No one should feel hesitant about scheduling an evaluation. “Any time people see behaviors that are causing issues in their life, they can consult a mental health professional and ask about them,” says Dr. Kawahara.

Even a 10- to 15-minute conversation with a mental health professional can be extremely beneficial. It can give people more information than they can typically find on their own, Dr. Kawahara notes.

5. Without treatment, bipolar disorder can negatively impact life

When bipolar disorder isn’t treated, it can disrupt daily life in major ways, notes Dr. Kawahara. For instance, if someone goes on shopping sprees or gambles while in a manic phase, their financial well-being could be damaged.

Untreated bipolar disorder can negatively affect relationships as well. It can also interfere with work or school performance, Dr. Kawahara notes.

6. There isn't one perfect treatment plan for everyone

If you get evaluated and are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the next step is treatment. “Most people can be successfully treated for bipolar disorder,” Dr. Tai says.

Treatment for bipolar disorder can take several forms. It may include medication, talk therapy and lifestyle changes such as exercise, he explains.

Treatment for bipolar disorder is individualized. What works for one person with bipolar disorder may not be the best course of treatment for someone else. “Every person is unique, and treatment is going to be dependent on what symptoms are occurring and the context in which they’re living,” Dr. Kawahara says.

For anyone having a hard time accepting a bipolar diagnosis, Dr. Kawahara suggests thinking of bipolar disorder like a physical health condition, such as diabetes. “If you had a physical disorder, you would go to a physician and figure out the best way to address it,” she says. “This is the same thing.”

The bottom line: Bipolar disorder is treatable. The key is working with a mental health professional. Together, you can come up with strategies to manage bipolar disorder and help make it less disruptive. A diagnosis does not have to get in the way of living a full life.

Already a member?

Sign in or register on your plan website to see personalized benefit details and resources to help you manage your plan and health.