What Are Bipolar Disorders?

What Are Bipolar Disorders?

Bipolar disorders are brain disorders that cause changes in a person’s mood, energy and ability to function. Bipolar disorder is a category that includes three different conditions — bipolar I, bipolar II and cyclothymic disorder.

People with bipolar disorders have extreme and intense emotional states that occur at distinct times, called mood episodes. These mood episodes are categorized as manic, hypomanic or depressive. People with bipolar disorders generally have periods of normal mood as well. Bipolar disorders can be treated, and people with these illnesses can lead full and productive lives.

Bipolar I Disorder

Symptoms of Bipolar I Disorder
Bipolar I disorder can cause dramatic mood swings. During a manic episode, people with bipolar I disorder may feel high and on top of the world, or uncomfortably irritable and “revved up.“ During a depressive episode they may feel sad and hopeless. There are often periods of normal moods in between these episodes. Bipolar I disorder is diagnosed when a person has a manic episode.

Manic Episode

Hypomanic Episode

Major Depressive Episode

Risk Factors

Treatment and Management

Bipolar II Disorder

Bipolar II disorder involves a person having at least one major depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode (see above). People return to usual function between episodes. People with bipolar II often first seek treatment because of depressive symptoms, which can be severe.

People with bipolar II often have other co-occurring mental illnesses such as an anxiety disorder or substance use disorder.

Treatment

Treatments for bipolar II are similar to those for bipolar I — medication and psychotherapy. Medications most commonly used are mood stabilizers and antidepressants, depending on the specific symptoms. If depression symptoms are severe and medication is not working, ECT (see above) may be used. Each person is different and each treatment is individualized.

Cyclothymic Disorder

Cyclothymic disorder is a milder form of bipolar disorder involving many mood swings, with hypomania and depressive symptoms that occur often and fairly constantly. People with cyclothymia experience emotional ups and downs, but with less severe symptoms than bipolar I or II.

Cyclothymic disorder symptoms include the following:

  • For at least two years, many periods of hypomanic and depressive symptoms (see above), but the symptoms do not meet the criteria for hypomanic or depressive episode.
  • During the two-year period, the symptoms (mood swings) have lasted for at least half the time and have never stopped for more than two months.

Treatment

Treatment for cyclothymic disorder can involve medication and talk therapy. For many people, talk therapy can help with the stresses of ongoing high and low moods. People with cyclothymia may start and stop treatment over time.

Physician Review By:

Ranna Parekh, M.D., M.P.H.
January 2017

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