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One minute you’re up, the next minute you’re down—Could it be bipolar?


  • Bipolar disorder is a result of chemical imbalances in the brain that cause neurotransmitter irregularities affecting brain functions associated with emotional stability.
  • Bipolar disorder is most common among those between the ages of 15-24, with up to 50% of sufferers experiencing their first symptoms before the age of 20.
  • While bipolar disorder is an incurable condition, it is possible to address neurotransmitter imbalances through the use of medication, allowing patients to manage their condition.


Bipolar disorder is a condition that causes its sufferers to experience severe swings between the two ends of the emotional scale, namely depressive episodes and manic episodes. Patients must deal with these extreme emotions for prolonged periods and even chronically. The condition has a repeat occurrence rate of between 70–90%, meaning that the lives of those with the condition, as well as those close to them, are severely impacted.

While bipolar disorder is an incurable condition, patients may lead entirely normal everyday lives if they receive the proper treatment. However, misconceptions held by people close to bipolar sufferers can often lead to them suffering alone, leading to extreme and even life-threatening situations.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder

There are two main sides to bipolar disorder and its symptoms:

  1. Manic episodes refer to times when the person looks completely at ease with the world, often overly so. They may talk loudly and exhibit high levels of confidence, seemingly oblivious to the thoughts of those close to them. In some cases, these emotions can lead to overspending or aggressive tendencies.
  2. Depressive episodes are at the opposite end of the scale, with patients feeling afraid and prone to withdrawing from society. They usually lose their self-esteem during a depressive episode, keeping themselves locked away and feeling fed up. Some patients feel so hopeless that they lose all sense of self-worth and consider taking their own lives.

Such episodes can be momentary or last for long periods before going away and being replaced by the emotion at the other end of the spectrum, although it is also possible that one type of episode can occur repeatedly. Nevertheless, symptoms of the condition are ultimately unpredictable, so being observant for any behavioural changes in patients can be crucial. For example, someone who was previously shy and reserved could turn into someone who speaks continuously and loudly, generally being overly expressive. Alternatively, someone who was once confident and outgoing may turn into a quiet person, withdrawing from society and becoming depressed or frequently ill. Should you notice that the personality of someone close to you changes as drastically as mentioned above, it is advised that you take them to see a doctor who can carry out a thorough diagnosis.

Causes of bipolar disorder

Studies show that roughly 1.5–5% of the population suffer from bipolar disorder, although the most commonly affected age group is 15–24 years. It has also been found that up to 50% of people who suffer from bipolar disorder experience their first symptoms before the age of 20 years. The causes of bipolar disorder are:

  • Irregularities affecting neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine, resulting in abnormalities in the brain’s ability to control emotions.
  • Genetic factors. While the true genetic causes remain unknown, patients with bipolar disorder have been found to come from families where other members have the condition.
  • A significant life event, including losing someone they love, losing their job, chronic stress or a sudden and severe illness, can significantly impact a person’s emotional stability.

Crucial indicators for bipolar disorder

  • Problems at work, such as being unable to complete tasks, acute creativity bursts, working so hard that colleagues find it difficult to keep up, or feeling so depressed that work gets left behind.
  • Symptoms similar to those of depression, including a loss of appetite, insomnia, concentration issues and a lack of energy.
  • Speaking so quickly that others find it difficult to understand, or sometimes speaking so much that what others say is being ignored, as well as cutting people off or changing the subject so frequently that it confuses others.
  • Being susceptible to loss of temper, becoming frustrated or angry at the smallest things, thus severely affecting day-to-day life, especially relationships with family members and colleagues.
  • Being in a good mood and finding satisfaction in every aspect of life, despite those situations not warranting such feelings, as well as laughing about things to the extent that it shocks others. In some cases, this happiness can quickly be replaced with a period of depression.
  • Beginning to use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication or to relax. When used frequently, it could ultimately lead to a larger problem, which can make it more difficult and complicated to treat bipolar disorder.
  • Sleep-related issues, including sleeping for less and less time each night but not feeling tired the next day, or oversleeping but not feeling rested.
  • Concentration issues, becoming easily distracted, fidgeting, becoming irritable and being unable to control emotions.

Diagnosing bipolar disorder

Should someone experience symptoms that cause them to suspect that they or someone close to them may be suffering from bipolar disorder, it is essential that they meet with a doctor who will diagnose the condition using the following techniques:

  • Doctors will begin by making detailed inquiries into the patient’s medical history as well as that of their family, in order to identify the presence of bipolar disorder or any other psychological issues.
  • A psychologist will use the diagnostic manual of mental disorders when screening and chatting to the patient about their symptoms and problems. They will also inquire about any prior illegal drug or psychoactive medication use, as well as check if they have ever harmed themselves or others around them.
  • A physical health examination will also take place, including urine screening and blood tests, in order to diagnose any physical health conditions that could be affecting one’s mental state.

Treating bipolar disorder

While bipolar disorder is an incurable condition, the affected neurotransmitters can be altered through the use of medication, which will redress any imbalances affecting brain function and make it possible to manage the irregular symptoms.

However, patients must continue taking medication or complete their course of medication as prescribed by their doctor, even if their symptoms seem to have gone away. Moreover, it is essential that patients attend all doctor appointments to have their condition closely monitored because missing any step of treatment could lead to a recurrence of the disorder, or a deterioration of their current condition.

Potential complications associated with bipolar disorder

Wildly swinging emotions can have a serious effect on the people close to bipolar disorder sufferers, especially if those people hold common misconceptions about this illness as this often leads to a breakdown in communication. The family unit, career and studies of those affected by the disorder could therefore be placed at risk, as could their physical health if they turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. A person may ultimately self-harm or even commit suicide if the condition is left unchecked.

Furthermore, people suffering from bipolar disorder are at risk of developing a number of other health conditions, such as psychological disorders, cardiovascular disease, migraines, diabetes and attention deficit disorders.

Self-help advice for those suffering with bipolar disorder

Although there is a lack of preventive measures available for bipolar disorder, some of the risk factors are entirely preventable, and the severity of the condition and its associated complications can also be reduced by adhering to the following recommendations:

  • Take good care of your physical health.
  • Avoid stress and develop effective ways to overcome your problems.
  • If you find yourself suffering from an illness, seek medical treatment, follow the doctor’s advice and take any medication as prescribed.
  • Consult your doctor immediately if your medication causes irregular symptoms.
  • Under no circumstances should you decide when to cease medication or miss any of your doctor’s appointments.

Although bipolar disorder is currently incurable, it can be managed effectively through the use of prescription drugs. However, most important is the understanding given by loved ones and family members to those suffering with the condition, as this will be invaluable to patients in helping them lead healthy and fulfilling lives in spite of their condition.

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