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What is Bipolar Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder (also known as “manic-depressive” illness) is a “brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.” It is normal for people to experience some mood changes as we go through the regular ups and downs of life. In contrast, individuals with bipolar disorder experience extreme mood and energy changes that can affect all aspects of their lives.

Generally speaking, a person with bipolar disorder moves between two opposite extremes – manic episodes and depressive episodes. Symptoms of a manic episode may include feeling extremely happy and outgoing, being agitated and jumpy, having an increased desire to take on new projects, and engaging in impulsive behavior or decision making. Symptoms of depression may include feeling worried, empty, and tired, losing interest in activities, and having thoughts of death or suicide. Individuals with bipolar disorder experience these different “mood episodes” in different ways and fluctuate between them in a variety of patterns and frequency.

Bipolar disorder often develops in a person’s late teen or early adult years. At least half of all cases start (although they may not be diagnosed) before age 25. Some people have their first symptoms during childhood, while others may develop symptoms late in life.

Bipolar disorder is not easy to spot when it starts. The symptoms may seem like separate problems, rather than recognized as parts of a larger problem. Some people suffer for years before they are properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be monitored throughout a person’s lifetime.

What is the treatment?

Bipolar disorder is a chronic condition that usually extends throughout a person’s lifetime. However, with appropriate treatment and support, individuals with this illness can live long, full lives. The first step in treatment is being correctly diagnosed. Because bipolar disorder shares symptoms with other conditions such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD, it is important to work with licensed professionals to determine the correct diagnosis.

Treatment usually includes one or more medications as well as psychological counseling and education. Medical treatments for bipolar disorder include mood stabilizers (such as lithium and valproic acid), atypical antipsychotic medications, and antidepressants. These medications can help to stabilize a person’s moods, prevent them from swinging back and forth between manic and depressive episodes, and control extreme symptoms and reactions. As with most drugs, these medications may have side effects, and it is important to work with your doctor to learn about them.

There are a variety of psychotherapy treatments used to treat bipolar disorder. These treatments help the individual and their loved ones to understand the illness, recognize the symptoms of new episodes, and learn coping mechanisms to help them continue to function in their work and social lives.

The best treatment for bipolar disorder is continuous treatment. Over time and with support, individuals experiencing manic-depressive illness can learn to recognize and manage their symptoms before they become more severe. Learning to live with bipolar disorder requires compassion, patience, and vigilance.

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