Bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive illness or manic depression) is a mental illness that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, activity levels, and concentration. These shifts can make it difficult to carry out day-to-day tasks.
There are three types of bipolar disorder. All three types involve clear changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. These moods range from periods of extremely “up,” elated, irritable, or energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very “down,” sad, indifferent, or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). Less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.
- Bipolar I disorder is defined by manic episodes that last for at least seven days (nearly every day for most of the day) or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate medical care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least two weeks. Episodes of depression with mixed features (having depressive symptoms and manic symptoms at the same time) are also possible. Experiencing four or more episodes of mania or depression within one year is called “rapid cycling.”
- Bipolar II disorder is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes. The hypomanic episodes are less severe than the manic episodes in bipolar I disorder.
- Cyclothymic disorder (also called cyclothymia) is defined by recurring hypomanic and depressive symptoms that are not intense enough or do not last long enough to qualify as hypomanic or depressive episodes.
Sometimes a person might experience symptoms of bipolar disorder that do not match the three categories listed above, and this is referred to as “other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders.”
Bipolar disorder is often diagnosed during late adolescence (teen years) or early adulthood. Sometimes, bipolar symptoms can appear in children. Although the symptoms may vary over time, bipolar disorder usually requires lifelong treatment. Following a prescribed treatment plan can help people manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Signs and symptoms
People with bipolar disorder experience periods of unusually intense emotion and changes in sleep patterns and activity levels, and engage in behaviors that are out of character for them—often without recognizing their likely harmful or undesirable effects. These distinct periods are called mood episodes. Mood episodes are very different from the person’s usual moods and behaviors. During an episode, the symptoms last every day for most of the day. Episodes may also last for longer periods, such as several days or weeks.
Symptoms of a Manic Episode
Symptoms of a Depressive Episode
Receiving the right diagnosis and treatment can help people with bipolar disorder lead healthy and active lives. Talking with a healthcare provider is the first step. The healthcare provider can complete a physical exam and other necessary medical tests to rule out other possible causes. The healthcare provider may then conduct a mental health evaluation or provide a referral to a trained mental health care provider, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker who has experience in diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder.
Mental healthcare providers usually diagnose bipolar disorder based on a person’s symptoms, lifetime history, experiences, and, in some cases, family history. Accurate diagnosis in youth is particularly important.
Find tips to help prepare for and get the most out of your visit with your healthcare provider.
Bipolar disorder and other conditions
Many people with bipolar disorder also have other mental disorders or conditions such as anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), misuse of drugs or alcohol, or eating disorders. Sometimes people who have severe manic or depressive episodes also have symptoms of psychosis, which may include hallucinations or delusions. The psychotic symptoms tend to match the person’s extreme mood. For example, someone having psychotic symptoms during a depressive episode may falsely believe they are financially ruined, while someone having psychotic symptoms during a manic episode may falsely believe they are famous or have special powers.
Looking at a person’s symptoms over the course of the illness and examining their family history can help a healthcare provider determine whether the person has bipolar disorder along with another disorder.
Researchers are studying possible causes of bipolar disorder. Most agree that there are many factors that are likely to contribute to a person’s chance of having the disorder.
Brain structure and functioning: Some studies show that the brains of people with bipolar disorder differ in certain ways from the brains of people who do not have bipolar disorder or any other mental disorder. Learning more about these brain differences may help scientists understand bipolar disorder and determine which treatments will work best. At this time, healthcare providers base the diagnosis and treatment plan on a person’s symptoms and history, rather than brain imaging or other diagnostic tests.
Genetics: Some research suggests that people with certain genes are more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Research also shows that people who have a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder have an increased chance of having the disorder themselves. Many genes are involved, and no one gene causes the disorder. Learning more about how genes play a role in bipolar disorder may help researchers develop new treatments.
Treatments and therapies
Treatment can help many people, including those with the most severe forms of bipolar disorder. An effective treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy, also called talk therapy.
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. Episodes of mania and depression typically come back over time. Between episodes, many people with bipolar disorder are free of mood changes, but some people may have lingering symptoms. Long-term, continuous treatment can help people manage these symptoms.
Certain medications can help manage symptoms of bipolar disorder. Some people may need to try different medications and work with their healthcare provider to find the medications that work best.
The most common types of medications that health care providers prescribe include mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotics. Mood stabilizers such as lithium or valproate can help prevent mood episodes or reduce their severity. Lithium also can decrease the risk of suicide. Healthcare providers may include medications that target sleep or anxiety as part of the treatment plan.
Although bipolar depression is often treated with antidepressant medication, a mood stabilizer must be taken as well—taking an antidepressant without a mood stabilizer can trigger a manic episode or rapid cycling in a person with bipolar disorder.
Because people with bipolar disorder are more likely to seek help when they are depressed than when they are experiencing mania or hypomania, it is important for healthcare providers to take a careful medical history to ensure that bipolar disorder is not mistaken for depression.
People taking medication should:
- Talk with their healthcare provider to understand the risks and benefits of the medication.
- Tell their healthcare provider about any prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or supplements they are
- Report any concerns about side effects to a healthcare provider right away. The healthcare provider may need to change the dose or try a different medication.
- Remember that medication for bipolar disorder must be taken consistently, as prescribed, even when one is feeling well.
It is important to talk to a healthcare provider before stopping a prescribed medication. Stopping medication suddenly may lead symptoms to worsen or come back. You can find basic information about medications on NIMH's medications webpage. Read the latest medication warnings, patient medication guides, and information on newly approved medications on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can be an effective part of treatment for people with bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy is a term for treatment techniques that aim to help people identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This type of therapy can provide support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an important treatment for depression, and CBT adapted for the treatment of insomnia can be especially helpful as part of the treatment for bipolar depression.
Treatment may also include newer therapies designed specifically for the treatment of bipolar disorder, including interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) and family-focused therapy.
Learn more about the various types of psychotherapies.
Other treatment options
Some people may find other treatments helpful in managing their bipolar symptoms:
- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a brain stimulation procedure that can help relieve severe symptoms of bipolar disorder. Healthcare providers may consider ECT when a person’s illness has not improved after other treatments, or in cases that require rapid response, such as with people who have a high suicide risk or catatonia (a state of unresponsiveness).
- Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is a type of brain stimulation that uses magnetic waves to relieve depression over a series of treatment sessions. Although not as powerful as ECT, rTMS does not require general anesthesia and has a low risk of negative effects on memory and thinking.
- Light therapy is the best evidence-based treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and many people with bipolar disorder experience seasonal worsening of depression or SAD in the winter. Light therapy may also be used to treat lesser forms of seasonal worsening of bipolar depression.
Unlike specific psychotherapy and medication treatments that are scientifically proven to improve bipolar disorder symptoms, complementary health approaches for bipolar disorder, such as natural products, are not based on current knowledge or evidence. For more information, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website.
Coping with bipolar disorder
Living with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but there are ways to help make it easier.
- Work with a healthcare provider to develop a treatment plan and stick with it. Treatment is the best way to start feeling better.
- Follow the treatment plan as directed. Work with a healthcare provider to adjust the plan, as needed.
- Structure your activities. Try to have a routine for eating, sleeping, and exercising.
- Try a regular, vigorous exercise like jogging, swimming, or bicycling, which can help with depression and anxiety, promote better sleep, and support your heart and brain health.
- Track your moods, activities, and overall health and well-being to help recognize your mood swings.
- Ask trusted friends and family members for help in keeping up with your treatment plan.
- Be patient. Improvement takes time. Staying connected with sources of social support can help.
Long-term, ongoing treatment can help control symptoms and enable you to live a healthy life.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2023, February). Bipolar Disorder. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder