What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder causes a range of symptoms that can be distressing and disruptive to your life. Formerly known as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder is a chronic condition that affects the brain.

This condition causes highs and lows in:

  • mood
  • behavior
  • energy
  • activity

The manic highs and depressive lows give the condition its name. There’s currently no known cure. People with the disorder can thrive with proper medication and treatment. There is also no single known cause of bipolar disorder, but there are certain risk factors.

The average age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Men and women seem to be affected equally. Symptoms usually occur in older teenagers or young adults. It’s possible for the condition to develop at older ages.

The symptoms of the disorder vary by the type of bipolar disorder that the person has. For instance, individuals with bipolar I disorder must experience a manic episode. The manic episode may by proceeded or followed by a depressive episode, but a depressive episode is not required to diagnose bipolar I disorder.

To be diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, a person has to have had a major depressive disorder following or preceded by a hypomanic episode. Sometimes, psychosis is involved. This is when the person sees or hears things that are not there, or has delusional thoughts. For instance, a person may develop delusions of grandeur (such as believing they are the president when they are not).

Symptoms of mania include:

  • rapid speech
  • lack of concentration
  • high sex drive
  • decreased need for sleep yet increased energy
  • increase in impulsivity
  • drug or alcohol abuse

Symptoms of depression include:

  • loss of energy
  • feeling hopeless
  • trouble concentrating
  • irritability
  • trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • appetite changes
  • thoughts of death or suicide
  • attempting suicide

If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.

If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

No one single risk factor means you’ll develop bipolar disorder. Scientists believe that multiple risk factors work together to trigger the illness. More research needs to be done to pin down the specific risk factors and causes.


Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. Children with a parent or sibling with the disorder have a higher chance of developing it than those without affected family members.

Identical twins don’t have the same risk of developing the illness. It’s likely that genes and environment work together in the development of bipolar disorder.


Sometimes a stressful event or major life change triggers a person’s bipolar disorder. Examples of possible triggers include the onset of a medical problem or the loss of a loved one. This kind of event can bring about a manic or depressive episode in people with bipolar disorder.

Drug abuse might trigger bipolar disorder. An estimated 60 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder are dependent on drugs or alcohol. People with seasonal depression or anxiety disorders may also be at risk for developing bipolar disorder.

Brain structure

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission technology (PET) are two types of scans that can provide images of the brain. Certain findings on brain scans may be associated with bipolar disorder. More research is needed to see how these findings specifically impact bipolar disorder and what this means for treatment and diagnosis.

More research is needed to pinpoint what exactly causes bipolar disorder. Your best bet for assessing your risk is to be mindful of your risk factors and discuss any mental or behavioral symptoms you experience with your healthcare provider.

You should be especially aware of possible symptoms if your family has a history of bipolar disorder or other mental health conditions. Consult your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing extreme stress and think that it may be linked to bipolar disorder.