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Bipolar disorder: key facts
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a condition in which
your mood can swing very high, or very low, for weeks or
months. It used to be called Manic Depression.
Your mood can be:
- low with intense depression and despair
- high or ‘manic’ with elation, over-activity or anger
- a 'mixed state' with symptoms of depression and
Bipolar disorder is less common than depression. It affects
about 1 person in a 100.
What causes bipolar disorder?
- It seems to run in families, so genes are
involved. Genetic causes are less common in the elderly.
- There may be a physical problem with the brain systems which
- Stress can trigger episodes.
How does it feel to have bipolar
- Feelings of unhappiness that don't go
- Agitation and restlessness
- Loss of self-confidence
- Feeling useless, inadequate and
- Thoughts of suicide
- Not able to think positively or
- Can't make decisions
- Can't concentrate, lose interest
- Can't eat, lose weight
- Can't sleep properly, wake early in
- Go off sex
- Avoid other people
- Very happy and excited
- Feel more important than usual
- Full of new and exciting ideas
- Move quickly from one idea to
- Full of energy
- Don't want to sleep
- More interested in sex
- Make unrealistic plans
- Very overactive, talking quickly
- Irritable with other people who can't
go along with your mood and ideas
- Spending more money
- Lose insight and be unaware of how
'unwell' you are
In a severe mood swing, you can have
- When depressed, you may believe that you are evil or guilty,
that you are worse than anybody else, or even that you don't
- When manic, you may feel that you are on an important mission
or that you have special powers and abilities.
- You might also experience hallucinations - when you hear or see
something that isn’t there.
- Treating a high: lithium, antipsychotics and sodium
valproate are the medications most commonly used.
- Treating depression:
antidepressants should be used
carefully as they can make people go high. It's best to stop them
as soon as the depression goes away.
- Psychological treatments:
these can also help. Methods include:
- education: learning about the
condition and how to control it
- mood monitoring: you learn to
notice when your mood is starting to change
- strategies: to stop you mood
going out of control
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for
- Learn to spot the early warning signs so you can get help
- Find out as much as you can about bipolar disorder.
- Be aware of how stress affects you.
- Have at least one person that you can rely on and confide in -
someone who can warn you if you think you are not well.
- Balance your life and work, leisure, and relationships.
- Do things that you enjoy and that give your life meaning.
- Don't stop medication suddenly.
- You may find it useful to keep a diary to record your daily
- You may want to write an ‘advance directive’ with your doctor
and family to say how you want to be treated if you become unwell
- Try to eat a healthy diet and to sleep well.
- If you drink alcohol, stick to the safe limits.
Helping someone else
- When someone is depressed, it can be difficult to know what to
say. They see everything in a negative light. Listen and try
to be patient and understanding.
- During mania, the person will appear to be happy, energetic and
outgoing. But the excitement of any social situations will risk
sending their mood even higher and their doing things that are out
of character for them. Try to steer them away from parties or
heated discussions. Persuade them to get help.
- In between mood episodes, find out more about the condition. Go
to appointments with them (if they are willing). Make sure you give
yourself space and time to recharge your batteries.
For more in-depth information see our main leaflet: Bipolar Disorder
This leaflet reflects the most up-to-date evidence at the time
Produced by the RCPsych Public Education Editorial Board.
Series Editor: Dr Philip Timms
Reviewed by Dr Ros Ramsay
© January 2014. Due for review: January 2016. Royal College of
Psychiatrists. You can link to, download, print, photocopy and
distribute this leaflet free of charge. But you must not change it
or repost it on a website.
a catalogue of public education materials or copies of our leaflets
Department, The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 21
Prescot Street, London E1 8BB. Telephone: 020
7235 2351 x 2552
Charity registration number (England and Wales) 228636 and in
Please note that we are unable to offer advice on individual cases. Please see our
advice on getting help.
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