What Is It, What Are Risk Factors and Possible Causes, How Is It Treated
Life never stays the same, it has ups and downs. Sometimes we are sad, other times we are happy. Sometimes we are angry, other times we are all relaxed. For many people, coping with these life changes and accompanying mood swings is relatively easy, for others, especially those who suffer from a particular type of depressive illness called “bipolar disorder”; these mood swings are quite extreme and adversely affect their energy levels and their ability to function.
What Is It?
Previously referred to as “manic-depressive illness”, bipolar disorder is actually a type of brain disorder that is characterised by unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy levels, and ability to function.
Unlike most people, patients suffering from this type of brain disorder often experience extreme mood swings accompanied by changes in energy levels, ability to sleep, think and perform clearly. Sometimes these mood swings and the accompanying symptoms are so strong that the person is unable to even go to school, hold down a job or maintain a healthy relationship. Under extreme conditions, people with bipolar disorder even try to hurt themselves or attempt suicide.
In Australia, bipolar disorder affects 1 in 50 Aussies and is typically diagnosed at the age of 20.
What are the Symptoms?
Bipolar disorder is a type of episodic disorder, meaning it is recurring in nature. It typically consists of the following 3 states or episodes:
- a high state referred to as mania or manic episode – the patient feels very happy and “up”, and is more energetic and active than usual
- a low state, referred to as depression or depressive episode – the patient feels very sad and “down”, and is less energetic and active than usual
- a normal state – the patient feels balanced again
Each episode of bipolar disorder is characterised by particular symptoms. Some common symptoms of a manic episode are outlined below:
Common Symptoms of Manic Episode | What Is Bipolar Disorder
- excessively ‘high’, euphoric mood
- increased energy levels
- extreme irritability
- disturbed sleep patterns
- poor judgment
- increased sexual drive
Common Symptoms of Depressive Episode
- extreme depression
- marked loss of interest or pleasure
- weight loss or weight gain
- sleep problems
- apathy or agitation
- loss of energy
- worthlessness and guilt
- suicidal thoughts
- severe anxiety
- inability to concentrate
If the symptoms of a manic episode or depressive episode occur most of the day, every day, for a week or longer, you need to consult an experienced psychiatrist for formal diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder.
What are the Risk Factors and Possible Causes?
Although the exact cause of bipolar disorder is still not fully understood, many researchers agree that there are many factors that act together to produce this illness. Here are some risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing bipolar disorder:
- Genetics – people with a family history of the disorder are at a higher risk of developing bipolar disorder
- Environment – stressful events, traumatic events, physical abuse, neglect, or other traffic events increase the likelihood of developing bipolar disorder
- Substance Abuse – people who abuse alcohol or drugs are at a higher risk of developing bipolar disorder
- Gender – women are three times more likely to experience the symptoms of bipolar disorder
How Is It Treated? | What Is Bipolar Disorder
Currently, there is no cure for bipolar disorder; the treatment usually revolves around controlling or managing the symptoms. The treatment of bipolar disorder usually involves a combination of medications and psychotherapies. Depending on the severity of the condition, a psychotherapist or GP may recommend any one or both of these treatment options to achieve substantial stabilisation of extreme mood swings and related symptoms.
Medications that are used to treat mental disorders or illnesses such as bipolar disorder are called psychotropics. These medications act on the brain and the nervous system and try to help to restore the normal chemical balance. Most of the symptoms associated usually respond well to these medications. Since it is a recurring illness, the patient may have to use these medications (psychotropics) for prolonged periods in order to treat/manage the symptoms and prevent them from returning.
- Psychosocial Treatments
The basic aim of using different psychosocial treatments such as psychotherapy, psycho-education, support group, and rehabilitation; is to help the patient learn the skills to:
- recognise and understand the signs and symptoms of manic and depressive episodes early, so proper treatment can be started early
- decrease the frequency and intensity of symptoms
- change their behavior and improve the quality of life
Psychosocial treatments for bipolar disorder are provided by a trained psychiatrist, therapist, or psychologist. Some of the common psychosocial interventions used for bipolar disorder are:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- family-focused therapy
- interpersonal and social rhythm therapy
Several clinical studies have shown that when used effectively with medications, these psychosocial interventions can lead to improved functioning, increased mood stability, and fewer hospitalisations.
- Other Treatments
In situations where the use of medications and psychosocial treatments works too slowly or proves ineffective, other treatment options such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or “shock” therapy and/or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may be recommended. ECT is considered to be a highly effective and safe treatment option for both manic phase and the depressive phase. ECT involved passing a small electric current through the brain in a very controlled environment, whereas TMS involves passing a series of short magnetic pulses through the brain in order to stimulate certain nerve cells.
Southbank Medical Centre