People often describe themselves or others as bipolar when they’re happy one moment and sad the next. As with other mental health issues, the words are overused and often ascribed to regular everyday emotions and experiences.

However, there’s more to bipolar disorders than mood swings. Bipolar disorder is a psychological disorder that’s characterized by periods of extreme depression, manic episodes, and normal moods. Sometimes you may cycle through these episodes throughout a month, a few days, or even in a single 24-hour period.

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder, which means it affects the way you feel and how your brain regulates your moods. Mental health issues like bipolar disorder are complex, and they can be difficult to diagnose. However, detecting the signs and symptoms early can help you get the treatment you need and to avoid some of the worst consequences of the disorder. But who’s at risk, and when does bipolar disorder start? Learn more about bipolar disorder, who it affects, and when you should look for the signs.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder that is classified as a mood disorder. It was once called manic depression because it causes low and high moods. Low moods include depression, which is typical of most mood disorders. However, bipolar disorder also features high moods, which are called mania or manic episodes. Bipolar disorder is related to another mood disorder called cyclothymic disorder, which involves emotional ups and downs that are less severe than full manic or depressive episodes.

Depressive episodes involve low moods with symptoms like feelings of worthlessness, sadness, and the loss of interest in most activities. Bipolar disorder also involves periods of abnormally elevated mood. Manic episodes feature elation, high energy levels, less need for sleep, impulsive behavior, and inflated self-worth. Bipolar disorder can also involve major depression and hypomania, which is an elevated mood that comes with some features of mania but doesn’t meet the full criteria for a manic episode. 

Bipolar disorder is often misunderstood as causing intense and sudden mood swings over a few minutes or hours. In reality, the disorder can cause dramatic changes in mood, but moods typically last for a week or more. To meet the criteria for a manic episode, an elevated mood needs to last for a week. The criteria for a depressive episode require it to last for two weeks or more. 

Bipolar is a complex mental health issue that can impair your occupational and social functioning, but it can be treated with the right therapy or medication options for your needs. 

How Does Bipolar Disorder Work?

Bipolar disorder is a psychological condition that causes extreme moods that are difficult to regulate. It typically includes depressive and manic episodes with depressive episodes being more common. Bipolar disorder is separated into two subcategories. Bipolar 1 disorder involves at least one manic episode and may or may not involve a major depressive episode. Bipolar 2 disorder involves at least one major depressive episode with no manic episode.


Manic episodes can cause you to feel euphoric, elated, anxious, jumpy, and hungry. It can also cause racing thoughts, the feeling that you don’t need sleep, and delusions of grandeur. In severe cases, manic episodes can manifest as psychosis. For instance, you may have the delusion that there’s a wide-reaching problem that only you can solve. Another common symptom is poor decision-making. It can cause you to feel so self-assured that you quit your job and start planning a trip around the world.

At some point, your mood begins to drop. You may feel normal for a while, or you may go straight into a depressive state. Depressive episodes are typically more common and longer-lasting than manic phases. It can cause you to feel fatigued, sad, apathetic, hopeless, or worthless. It often comes with sleep problems like insomnia or hypersomnia. You may also have trouble concentrating or making decisions.

How Does Bipolar Disorder Develop?

Most people experience their first symptoms of bipolar disorder during their teen years. When bipolar starts, symptoms can come on suddenly and may appear as quickly as any other mood disorder. Dramatic changes in mood usually happen over several days, but in some cases, mood changes can occur within a few hours. Changes may not always be between manic and depressive episodes. In some cases, you can return to a normal mood for several weeks before changing to a high or low mood. 

Bipolar disorder typically causes a few periods of extreme mood per year. If you experience four or more periods of mania, depression, or hypomania in a year, it’s called rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Ultra-rapid cycling is even less common, which is experiencing four mood changes in a month. 

But can you develop bipolar disorder later in life? Bipolar disorder may develop later in life, but later diagnoses may be cases of misdiagnosis that go on for years. In some cases, bipolar disorder is misdiagnosed as major depression and even schizophrenia. 

Who’s At Risk For Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder affects about 2.8 percent of adults in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. Around 83 percent of those people were severely impaired by the disorder while they rest only experienced moderate impairments.

Men and women experience bipolar disorder at similar rates. It also seems to affect all races and socioeconomic classes at similar rates as well. The disorder can begin at any age, but it’s most common among young adults. But can you become bipolar at any age? According to the National Comorbidity Survey, 18- to 29-year-olds represent the largest group of people that had bipolar disorder in the past year, with 30- to 44-year-olds being the next highest range.

However, the survey only included people 18 years old or older, so adolescents could have high instances of the disorder. Bipolar disorder can occur in children as young as age 6, although it’s rare, and it’s a controversial diagnosis in children. If your child is diagnosed, it’s wise to continually follow up with your medical professionals and get a second opinion. It’s more commonly seen in teens and young adults, and the most common age of onset is 25 years old.

Bipolar disorder also has a strong genetic component. If someone in your family has it, then the risk of you having it go up considerably. You are especially at risk if an immediate family member has it, such as your parents, siblings, or children. However, even if they have it, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it. Other risk factors include:

  • Periods of high stress
  • High-stress jobs or environments
  • Substance use disorders
  • Other mental health issues

If left untreated, bipolar disorder can also lead to substance use issues, relationship problems, suicidal actions, financial problems, and even physical health problems like heart disease.

How Is Bipolar Disorder Treated?

Once you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there are several treatment options, including medications and therapy options. Medications will depend on your specific needs and your experience with the disorder. 

Medication options include:

  • Antidepressants. Antidepressants like SSRIs can increase serotonin levels in the brain, which can improve your mood when you’re experiencing depression. However, SSRIs may be less effective at treating a manic episode.
  • Mood stabilizers. Mood stabilizers like lithium, valproic acid, and others are commonly used to treat bipolar disorder. These medications are specifically used when you’re experiencing manic or hypomanic episodes. 
  • Antipsychotics. In some cases, bipolar disorder can cause psychotic symptoms, especially delusions that occur during manic episodes. Delusions are typically delusions of grandeur or paranoid delusions.

People with bipolar disorder can also benefit from different types of therapy, including behavioral therapies that can help them learn to cope with symptoms more effectively. 

Why Seek Treatment?

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health disorder that might be related to bipolar disorder, there may be help available. Mental health disorders are often treatable, but if they’re left unaddressed, they often worse one’s health over time. Bipolar disorder can lead to both mental and physical health complications. Insomnia and sleep disturbances can cause long-term health problems like obesity and heart disease. Major depressive episodes can also lead to suicidal thoughts. Bipolar has been shown to increase a person’s suicide risk significantly. To start taking steps toward better mental health today, learn more about bipolar disorder and how it can be treated.

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