Bipolar disorder is a recurring illness that involves long-term, drastic changes in mood. A person experiences alternating highs (mania) and lows (depression). A manic period can be brief, lasting just a few days, or longer, lasting up to several weeks. The depressive periods may also last from days to weeks to even six or nine months. Periods of mania and depression range from person to person and many people experiencing very brief periods of these intense moods may not even be aware they have bipolar disorder.
The ‘highs’, or manic episodes, are characterized by extreme happiness, hyperactivity, little need for sleep and racing thoughts that may lead to rapid speech. People often become impulsive and act aggressively, resulting in high-risk behavior like repeated intoxication, extravagant spending and risky sexual behavior. Symptoms of the ‘lows’ or depressive periods include extreme sadness, lack of energy or interest, an inability to enjoy normally pleasurable activities and feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. Sometimes a person with bipolar disorder may have symptoms that overwhelm their ability to deal with reality. This inability to distinguish reality from unreality results in psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices, paranoia, visual hallucinations and false beliefs of special powers or identity.
Those with the disorder often describe it as being ‘on an emotional rollercoaster’. The emotions, thoughts and behaviors of the person are beyond his control—family and friends must intervene to protect their interests. This makes the condition exhausting not only for the sufferer but for those in contact with them as well.
Identifying the first episode of mania or depression and receiving early treatment is essential to managing bipolar disorder. Usually the first recognized episode of the disorder is manic. Those who first seek treatment as a result of a depressed episode may continue to be treated for depression and ironically, treatment of depressed bipolar individuals with antidepressants can trigger a manic episode in some – another reason why a proper diagnosis is incredibly important.
Treatment for bipolar disorder most often consists of medication, particularly mood stabilizers such as lithium or divaproex sodium (Depakote). Sometimes antidepressants are used in conjunction with mood stabilizers, and some antipsychotic medications have been found to have mood-stabilizing properties as well.
Therapy in conjunction with medical is recommended as people with bipolar disorder also highly benefit from recognizing and dealing with their symptoms from a cognitive-behavioral perspective.