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What is bipolar disorder?

Reading time: 6-8 minutes

Bipolar disorder (once referred to as manic depression) is a mental health condition that dramatically affects your mood.

What is it? 

Someone with bipolar disorder will probably go through periods of feeling extremely high (mania) and extremely low (depression) or a combination of both at the same time. There may also be psychotic episodes, where the person’s view of reality becomes distorted in some way.

A person with bipolar disorder isn’t always in a state of being really high or really low, and they may feel fine in between these times. Not everyone experiences bipolar disorder in the same way – you can read about the different types and their symptoms on the Mind website.

If you have bipolar disorder, the way you think, act and feel can change significantly during manic and depressive episodes. Your energy and concentration levels can shift, your feelings of self-worth may be affected, and you might find yourself getting irritated or excited very easily. During periods of feeling extremely low, some people can feel suicidal.

Living with bipolar disorder can be very upsetting, as your mood can change from one week to the next. You may find it interfering with your relationships, school, work and general wellbeing. However, there are plenty of treatment and support options to help you manage the extreme nature of bipolar disorder and begin living life to the full.

What can it feel like? 

Living with the condition can make life feel very difficult at times, so it can be frustrating when people casually use “bipolar” to describe someone who’s just a bit moody. In fact, bipolar disorder can lead to an array of different emotions, and these may change depending on whether you’re experiencing an extreme low or an extreme high (or anything in between).

During a "manic episode", you may:

  • Feel very energetic or jumpy
  • Feel incredibly happy
  • Feel less need to rest or sleep
  • Feel very confident or invincible
  • Have racing thoughts
  • Have an increased desire for certain activities, such as sex, eating, or drug/alcohol consumption
  • Become irritated or agitated very easily
  • Want to accomplish a lot of things at once
  • Talk very fast, sometimes jumping from topic to topic

During a "depressive episode", you may:

  • Feel extremely low or sad
  • Feel lethargic
  • Feel worthless
  • Find it difficult to concentrate
  • Find little enjoyment in things
  • Have increased anxiety
  • Have trouble sleeping or sleep too much
  • Have low self-esteem and confidence
  • Have suicidal thoughts

Sometimes, these drastic changes in mood can make everyday life feel unmanageable. You might feel especially isolated if people around you don’t fully understand what you’re going through. Remember that you’re never alone in your experiences and there’s always someone you can talk to who can help you through the toughest times.

What might help?

The symptoms of bipolar disorder can leave you feeling alone and out of control of your feelings and behaviours. However, finding the right support and developing tools to help you manage your moods can make life feel a bit less rocky and increase your overall wellbeing. We’ve listed a few suggestions below, but head to Mind’s website for plenty more tips on what might help you to cope.

  • Explore a diagnosis. If you think you might have bipolar disorder, you might want to talk to your GP about it (don't use this article to diagnose yourself!). They’ll ask some questions to get a better understanding of what you’re going though, and they may ask you to record your moods over a longer period of time and come back again later. If your GP thinks that you have bipolar disorder, they’ll refer you to a mental health professional or team, who’ll be able to give you a formal diagnosis.

From there, mental health professionals will work with you to get a treatment plan in place. This is usually a combination of medication and talking therapy, with the aim to stabilise your moods and better manage your individual symptoms.

  • Talk to someone. The highs and lows of bipolar disorder can cause a lot of distress, and depressive episodes may leave you feeling particularly down. Telling a trusted person how you’re feeling can be reassuring and will allow them to offer you support if and when you need it. If you’re not comfortable opening up to a family member or friend, you might prefer to speak to someone online or over the phone (see our Support section below). 
  • Keep a diary. Making note of your moods can help you to identify any patterns in how you’re feeling. For example, you might feel very high or low depending on certain situations or times of the day. You may also spot common changes in your behaviour in the run-up to a manic/depressive episode. Knowing these things can help you to prepare and look after yourself, such as letting someone close to you know that you need support.
  • Reduce stress levels. For many people with bipolar disorder, feeling stressed can lead to both manic and depressive episodes. There are lots of things you can do to ease stress, such as exploring different ways to relax and telling others how you’re feeling.
  • Don’t neglect your physical health! Things like keeping active, eating nutritious meals and getting enough sleep can all impact the frequency or severity of manic/depressive episodes. By taking care of your body, your mind is also likely to benefit. 

Where to go for more support

There are lots of support options and resources available for people living with bipolar disorder:

Seek support from 42nd While we can’t diagnose or offer specialist support for bipolar disorder, our services allow you to talk about your feelings, help you to understand your behaviours and develop positive coping strategies when difficult feelings come up. We provide a number of services, both online and face-to-face, which offer something slightly different depending on what you want to get out of the support. Overall, though, every service provides you with someone who will listen, acknowledge your feelings, and work with you to develop ways to manage your moods. You can read about our services here.

  • Bipolar UK offers support and resources to those affected by bipolar disorder, including family members and friends. They have an eCommunity which allows you to connect with other people who have similar experiences, as well as regular online events and support meetings.
  • Mind has loads of information about bipolar disorder, including the different types, diagnosis process, treatment options and ways to help yourself. 
  • Rethink Mental Illness goes into a lot of detail about bipolar disorder, different types of therapy and medications, and much more. They’ve compressed all of this information into a downloadable fact sheet, which may come in useful both for yourself and those around you. 
  • YoungMinds has more information about bipolar disorder for young people. They also have a free 24/7 messenger service if you’d like to chat to someone about your feelings and experiences via text. 
  • The Mix explores bipolar disorder a bit more and looks at how it might affect different aspects of your life, such as school and friendships. There’s also a 1-2-1 chat service, email support and helpline if you don’t know what to do next or just want to speak to someone. 
  • Please remember that if you’re ever feeling desperate or think that you might hurt yourself, you can walk into any A+E for immediate support.

By: Ruby Guyler 

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