Bipolar disorder is based in brain chemistry and tends to run in families.
Bipolar disorder is a medical condition in which a person experiences extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression). Also called manic-depression, it is more serious than the everyday ups and downs that most people experience. During a manic episode, a person’s mood flies high—he or she may be excessively excited, irritable, or aggressive. People who are manic might not see anything wrong with their behavior, even though it’s alienating to family and friends. During a depressive episode, all that manic energy disappears and that same person might feel sad, sluggish, or disinterested in previously enjoyable activities.
Bipolar disorder can manifest a variety of mood patterns; some people might primarily have episodes of mania or of depression, or they may cycle rapidly between the two. It’s also possible to remain symptom-free for extended periods of time.
Bipolar disorder is based in brain chemistry and tends to run in families. However, environmental factors such as stress, sleep disruption, and drug or alcohol use may also trigger manic-depressive episodes. It is most commonly diagnosed in people of college age. It can affect people’s ability to work, study, interact with others, or take care of themselves. It is not uncommon for people with bipolar disorder to think about suicide, and it is important to seek help immediately if you or someone you know is having these thoughts.
- Excessively “high,” euphoric mood
- Extreme irritability
- Unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities and powers, such as feeling able to control world events
- Decreased need for sleep without feeling tired
- Racing thoughts or fast speech
- Distractibility or difficulty concentrating
- Spending sprees
- Increased energy, activity, and restlessness
- Poor judgment
- Increased sexual drive
- Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping medications
- Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior
- Denial that anything is wrong
- Persistently sad, anxious, irritable or empty mood
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, including sex
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Feeling tired or rundown
The good news is that bipolar disorder is highly treatable with counseling and/or medication. Medications play a big part in successfully managing bipolar disorder; at least 70% of people with bipolar disorder respond well to medication that reduces the frequency and intensity of manic episodes. A healthy lifestyle also plays an important role—proper nutrition and sleep, effective coping skills, a support network, psychotherapy, and religious or spiritual practice all can help manage bipolar disorder. If you or someone you know may have bipolar disorder, contact your campus health center, especially if thoughts of suicide are present. Your campus health center can connect you with a therapist or group counseling, or find the appropriate medical treatment.
Managing bipolar disorder is a lifelong commitment. When properly diagnosed and treated, people with bipolar disorder can lead highly successful, fulfilling lives.
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Are you worried that a friend or loved one may be bipolar? You may see warning signs that they can’t or don’t want to acknowledge. Maybe you’ve noticed that their behavior or appearance has changed. Maybe they’re missing classes or suddenly disinterested in things they usually enjoy. They may talk about grandiose plans or ideas that don’t quite make sense. Or, you may witness that they’re swinging between frightening levels of euphoria and doldrums over time. Don’t assume that the problem will go away on its own, or that your friend can just “snap out of it.”
Before talking about your concerns with your friend, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Explain to your friend that lately they’ve been behaving in ways that worry you. Some people get defensive or angry when they’re confronted; your conversation may go more smoothly if you don’t judge, get upset, or make accusations. Instead, try listening to your friend and asking open-ended questions about their feelings. You can’t force your friend into action, but you can make a big difference by offering your encouragement and help in seeking treatment.