What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a kind of mental illness that can interfere with daily living, relationships, work, and school. People with bipolar disorder are also at a greater risk for reckless behavior, substance abuse, and suicide. Bipolar disorder is often referred to by the older term “manic depression.”

The condition affects over 5.7 million adult Americans, according to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Symptoms tend to start when people are in their late teens or 20s. However, children and older adults can get bipolar disorder, too.

There’s no cure for bipolar disorder. For many people, though, symptoms can be managed with a combination of medications and therapy. Treatment is often most successful when the disorder is diagnosed and treated soon after its symptoms appear.

A number of medications may be used to treat bipolar disorder. You’ll likely have to try different medications and combinations of medications to find the medication most effective for you that has the fewest side effects.

Medications for bipolar disorder include:

Mood stabilizers

Mood stabilizers are the first-line treatment for bipolar disorder. Lithium and certain anticonvulsants are often effective at managing the extreme changes in mood associated with bipolar disorder. All mood stabilizers treat the symptoms of mania. Several also treat the symptoms of depression. These include:

  • lithium (Lithobid)
  • lamotrigine (Lamictal), which is an anticonvulsant

Atypical antipsychotics

Atypical antipsychotic medications may be used to treat bipolar disorder. These include:

They may even be prescribed when you have no symptoms of psychosis. They’re often used in combination with other medications.


Antidepressants are often prescribed for people who are in the depressive phase of the bipolar cycle. Antidepressants should be used with caution. In some instances, they can trigger manic episodes or speed up the timing between the highs and lows of bipolar disorder. This is known as rapid cycling.

Minor tranquilizers

Minor tranquilizers may be prescribed for people with bipolar disorder. These may include:

They’re often used to control mania before mood stabilizers take effect. They can also treat sleeplessness. Additionally, they may help relieve anxiety, which is frequently experienced by people with bipolar depression. Xanax is one of the newer entries in the tranquilizer lineup, and it’s the most commonly prescribed.

Alprazolam (Xanax) is in a class of drugs called benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines are tranquilizers or anti-anxiety medications. They work by increasing the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain. GABA is a chemical messenger that helps your brain function and carries signals from your brain to the rest of your body. Boosting GABA levels helps calm and relax people. It also helps people sleep.

Xanax may be prescribed to treat symptoms of the manic phase of bipolar disorder. These symptoms include:

Xanax may offer an advantage over other benzodiazepines because it’s believed to be useful in treating depression as well as the revved-up highs of mania.

Sleepiness is the most common side effect associated with Xanax. Other symptoms you may experience when taking Xanax include:

Xanax may increase the effect of alcohol and other central nervous system (CNS) depressants. These CNS depressants may include:

Xanax and other benzodiazepines can become habit-forming, even when taken for short periods of time. People who take Xanax also often develop a tolerance to the medication and need to increase the amount of the drug for it to still be effective.

Don’t take Xanax if you’re pregnant or there’s a chance you may become pregnant. If you’re breastfeeding, check with your doctor before taking Xanax.

Many people experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking Xanax, including:

Xanax should be discontinued only under the care of a physician. Your doctor will help you gradually reduce the amount of medication to minimize withdrawal symptoms.

Work with your doctor to decide if Xanax is right for treating your bipolar disorder. Never suddenly stop any medication without consulting your doctor, so that they can create a tapering plan that’s right for you.