Bipolar disorders are one of several medical conditions called depressive disorders. Depressive disorders affect the way a persons brain functions.
Depressive disorders are widespread. In the United States alone, its estimated that more than 17.4 million adults have a depressive disorder each year. That works out to about 1 out of every 7 people, so theres a good chance that you or someone you know is dealing with a depressive disorder.
Bipolar disorder goes by many names: manic depression, manic-depressive disorder, manic-depressive illness, bipolar mood disorder, and bipolar affective disorder are medical terms for the same condition.
Mental health experts separate the condition into these four types because the symptoms of bipolar disorder show up differently in different people. When doctors know what type someone has, they can tailor treatment to that persons specific needs.
Bipolar disorder affects both men and women. For many people, the first symptoms show up in their early twenties. However, research has shown that the first episode of bipolar disorder is occurring earlier: It often shows up in adolescence, and even children can have the disorder.
Recent research suggests that kids and teens with bipolar disorder dont always have the same behavioral patterns that adults with bipolar disorder do. For example, kids who have bipolar disorder may experience particularly rapid mood changes and may have some of the other mood-related symptoms listed below, such as irritability and high levels of anxiety. But they may not show other symptoms that are more commonly seen in adults.
Because brain function is involved, the ways people with bipolar disorder think, act, and feel are all affected. This can make it especially difficult for other people to understand their condition. It can be incredibly frustrating if other people act as though someone with bipolar disorder should just "snap out of it," as if a person who is sick can become well simply by wanting to.
A person with bipolar disorder will go through episodes of mania (highs) and at other times experience episodes of depression (lows). These arent the normal periods of happiness and sadness that everyone experiences from time to time. Instead, the episodes are intense or severe mood swings, like a pendulum that keeps arcing higher and higher.
In adults, episodes of mania or depression usually last for weeks or months, although they can be shorter in length. In children and adolescents, though, these episodes can be much shorter, and a kid or teen can even go back and forth between mania and depression throughout the day.
Episodes of mania or depression may happen irregularly and follow an unpredictable pattern or they may be linked, with a manic episode always following a period of depression, or vice versa. Sometimes episodes have a seasonal pattern. Mania in the spring, for example, may be followed by depression in the winter.
Between episodes, someone with bipolar disorder usually returns to normal (or near-normal) functioning. For some people, though, there is little or no "break period" between their cycles. These mood swing cycles can change slowly or rapidly, with rapid cycling between mania and depression being much more common in women, children, and adolescents.
Some people with bipolar disorder turn to alcohol and drugs because they feel temporarily better when theyre high. But using alcohol and drugs can have disastrous results for people with bipolar disorder. Substance abuse can actually make the symptoms worse, as well as making the condition hard for doctors to diagnose.
Doctors and scientists dont know the exact cause of bipolar disorder, but they think that biochemical, genetic, and environmental factors may all be involved. Its believed this condition is caused by imbalances in certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. If the neurotransmitters arent in balance, the brains mood-regulating system wont work the way it should.
Genes also play a role. If a close relative has bipolar disorder, a persons risk of developing the condition is higher. This doesnt mean, though, that if you have a relative with bipolar disorder you will automatically develop it! Even in studies involving identical twins raised in the same home, one twin sometimes had bipolar disorder whereas the other did not. Researchers are now working on identifying the gene or genes involved in bipolar disorder.
Environmental factors may play a role in bipolar disorder. For some teens, stresses such as a death in the family, their parents divorce, or other traumatic events could trigger a first episode of mania or depression. Sometimes, going through the changes of puberty can set off an episode. In girls, symptoms can be tied to their monthly menstrual cycle.
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