What is bipolar disorder?

In recent weeks, bipolar disorder has been getting some media coverage, thanks to singer-actress Selena Gomez’ new Apple TV+ documentary, My Mind and Me, where she opens up about her psychosis and bipolar disorder.

But so much about bipolar disorder has been shrouded in mystery, with many misunderstanding the diagnosis.

Bipolar disorder is a medical, mental health condition. It is characterized by symptoms of depression and elevated mood occurring cyclically. Usually, bipolar disorder consists of three states: mania (high state), depression (low state), and well state, which is when many people report feeling “normal” and well.

You might think, “Well, that sounds like anyone going through ups and downs – isn’t that normal?” You wouldn’t be wrong – everyone does go through happy feelings and sad feelings. But a person with bipolar disorder feels these things in a much more extreme way.

When a bipolar person is in their manic phase, they seem continually happy, euphoric, positive and high – or they may see extremely irritable, aggressive, frustrated, or angry – for at least a week. Often, the person is also feeling easily distracted, more talkative than usual, and seem to want to engage in risky, dangerous behavior. They may report racing thoughts, elevated self-esteem, or may not want to (or be able to) sleep. This is considered mania.

Hypomania is a less intense form of this, and would result in a person reporting happy, energetic feelings, for example, but their life isn’t disrupted in any way. Still, left untreated, hypomania may lead to full-blown mania.

In a depressive state, a bipolar person would be feeling at least five of the following symptoms for two weeks or longer: depressed mood, loss of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of guilt, feelings of worthlessness, weight loss (or weight gain), loss of interest in things they once found pleasurable, agitation, apathy, insomnia, hypersomnia, or suicidal ideation.

Sometimes, those with bipolar disorder may feel both mania and depression at the same time, which is referred to as a mixed episode. Mixed episodes are very painful for the person going through them.

As with many mental health disorders, it’s not known what exactly causes bipolar disorder, but in many instances they could be brought about by stress, biology, or environmental factors. Bipolar disorder can be very difficult to diagnose because of so many symptoms, and many people typically seek help when they’re going through the depressive state, which could result in a diagnosis of depression only.

But once diagnosed, there are treatments for bipolar depression.

Usually, a doctor will prescribe medication (mood stabilizers, antidepressants, or antipsychotics) or psychotherapy. In many instances, a combination of the two is suggested.

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