Introduction 

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another.

If you have bipolar disorder, you will have periods or episodes of:

  • depression  where you feel very low and lethargic
  • mania  where you feel very high and overactive (less severe mania is known as hypomania)

Symptoms of bipolar disorder depend on which mood you are experiencing. Unlike simple mood swings, each extreme episode of bipolar disorder can last for several weeks (or even longer), and some people may not experience a "normal" mood very often.

Depression

The depression phase of bipolar disorder is often diagnosed first. You may initially be diagnosed with clinical depression before having a future manic episode (sometimes years later), after which you may be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

During an episode of depression, you may have overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, which can potentially lead to thoughts of suicide.

If you're feeling suicidal or having severe depressive symptoms, contact your GP, care co-ordinator or local mental health emergency services as soon as possible.

If you want to talk to someone confidentially, call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. You can talk to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Alternatively, visit the Samaritans website or email jo@samaritans.org.

Mania

During a manic phase of bipolar disorder, you may feel very happy and have lots of ambitious plans and ideas. You may spend large amounts of money on things you cannot afford and would not normally want.

Not feeling like eating or sleeping, talking quickly and becoming annoyed easily are also common characteristics of this phase.

You may feel very creative and view the manic phase of bipolar as a positive experience. However, you may also experience symptoms of psychosis (where you see or hear things that are not there or become convinced of things that are not true).

Living with bipolar disorder

The high and low phases of bipolar disorder are often so extreme that they interfere with everyday life.

However, there are several options for treating bipolar disorder that can make a difference. They aim to control the effects of an episode and help someone with bipolar disorder live life as normally as possible.

The following treatment options are available:

  • medication to prevent episodes of mania, hypomania (less severe mania) and depression – these are known as mood stabilisers and are taken every day on a long-term basis
  • medication to treat the main symptoms of depression and mania when they occur
  • learning to recognise the triggers and signs of an episode of depression or mania
  • psychological treatment – such as talking therapy, which can help you deal with depression, and provides advice about how to improve your relationships
  • lifestyle advice – such as doing regular exercise, planning activities you enjoy that give you a sense of achievement, as well as advice on improving your diet and getting more sleep

It's thought using a combination of different treatment methods is the best way to control bipolar disorder.

Help and advice for people with a long-term condition or their carers is also available from charities, support groups and associations.

This includes self-help and self-management advice, and learning to deal with the practical aspects of a long-term condition.

Find out more about living with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder and pregnancy

Bipolar disorder, like all other mental health problems, can get worse during pregnancy. However, specialist help is available if you need it.

Read more about bipolar disorder in pregnancy.

What causes bipolar disorder?

The exact causes of bipolar disorder are unknown, although it's believed that several things can trigger an episode. Extreme stress, overwhelming problems and life-changing events are thought to contribute, as well as genetic and chemical factors.

Who is affected?

Bipolar disorder is fairly common and one in every 100 adults will be diagnosed with the condition at some point in their life.

Bipolar disorder can occur at any age, although it often develops between the ages of 18 and 24. Men and women from all backgrounds are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder.

The pattern of mood swings in bipolar disorder varies widely between people. For example, some people will only have a couple of bipolar episodes in their lifetime and will be stable in between, while others will have many episodes.

Bipolar disorder and driving

If you have bipolar disorder, the condition may impair your driving. You must inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) about any medical condition that could affect your ability to drive.

Page last reviewed: 08/04/2014

Next review due: 08/04/2016