What is Bipolar Disorder?

Many people generalize mood swings as someone being bipolar, but what is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder where the individual experiences manic and depressive phases. Manic and depressive phases may occur in short bursts of time, few or multiple times per year. They may also last for weeks or months, depending on the individual case.

So how can we recognize if someone is experiencing bipolar disorder? Below, we’ll discuss common causes, various symptoms/signs of both the manic and depression moods and treatment options.

Causes of Bipolar Disorder

As with many mental health disorders, the cause of this disorder could be from a variety of things. Causes include the environment a child grew up in, genetic factors, brain dysfunction or other trauma/extreme experiences. 

Traumatic events

The environment we live in, especially as a child, has much to do with how the rest of our lives will go.

If we are able to recognize harmful issues and take better care of ourselves, we can avoid a variety of mental and emotional health problems later in life.

Often, people can develop bipolar from trauma that has gone untreated. Several types of trauma can cause mental and emotional disorders once the child reaches adulthood.

Examples of childhood trauma that can contribute to developing bipolar disorder are physical, sexual, verbal and/or mental abuse.

Abuse often has more of an effect on the victims than they may realize. It essentially changes the way your brain operates depending on the type and severity of it.

Trauma such as the loss of a close loved one, at a young age can contribute to the development of bipolar disorder as well.

Losing a home, surviving dangerous situations such as a fire, car accident or nearly drowning or anything such as this could cause the individual to develop in a way that causes them to develop bipolar disorder.

It all depends on the makeup of the individual’s brain. How well they cope with traumatic events, the support they receive and the narrative they play around the event.

If nothing happened during childhood that could cause the onset of bipolar later in life, it could still develop during adulthood. Again, this could happen in the event of any extreme trauma.

Typically it is seen much more commonly in children as the trauma is suppressed. Bipolar develops slowly over time, however, it is possible for an abrupt event to cause bipolar to develop more rapidly than it is usually seen.

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Genetic Factors

Genetic factors such as personality traits and emotional tendencies have a lot to do with whether someone has bipolar disorder or not.

As with OCD and anxiety, typically a parent has passed those disorders down to their children. Unfortunately, bipolar can be developed if the genetic makeup is there from birth.

If someone is aware of their family history and is proactive about taking care of themselves and treatment, they can certainly reverse the genetic “path” for themselves and their children. 

Brain Dysfunction

Sometimes genetic factors and traumatic events have nothing to do with the development of bipolar disorder. Dysfunction within the brain can be the cause simply because chemicals are not functioning properly.

Chemical imbalances in the brain cause a variety of mental disorders. Depression being one of the main ones.

This is the case when neurotransmitters that send signals (of what to feel in a given situation) to each other are not releasing the right chemical.

It’s like receiving an incorrect package that you ordered. Someone with a disorder such as bipolar or depression does not receive the “happy” chemicals they’re supposed to since their brain is out of balance.

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Your brain might try to regulate itself without success. This is where medication such as an antidepressant comes into play. An antidepressant does not give you artificial “happy” chemicals.

Instead. It blocked the receptors from sending out more “unhappy” chemicals so that the “happy” ones can build back up.

Depending on the specific case, doctors may prescribe a mix of certain medications that best suit your needs.

Some people cannot take antidepressants in which case, other medications or methods of treatment will be used.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

Symptoms of bipolar are easier to spot when you break them out between which phase the individual is in.

While symptoms may vary between those suffering with bipolar, understanding what they’re going through during the manic and depression phases can help.

Here’s a closer look at what these two distinct phases could look like.

Symptoms of the Manic Phase

Contrary to popular belief, the manic phase of bipolar does not mean that the individual is “going crazy” or always experiencing heightened negative emotions.

The manic phase is simply the emotional phase before the depressive phase. The emotions expressed are usually a variety of such. Here is what the manic phase could specifically look like.

Extreme Excitement/Joy

Someone experiencing an episode of mania could experience a big burst of energy and excitement. They may get really excited about everyday things that many of us might not think twice about.

The extreme feeling of excitement might not be for a particular event or cause. They might act extremely “hyper” and gitty instead.

what is bipolar disorder

These outbursts will seem to come out of nowhere. Others may find it annoying, but to the person experiencing the manic episode, their feelings are real. They feel an intense amount of excitement, joy and/or happiness. Often for “no reason”.

Sudden Mood Swings

Just as quickly as their excitement and joy comes, it can go. Having extreme mood swings are one of the most common symptoms of a manic episode.

Someone struggling with a manic episode can go from being happy and excited to irritable and upset in seemingly no time.

It may be a constant rollercoaster of emotions for those around them. Dealing with sudden mood changes is hard for those suffering with bipolar disorder as well though.

Inability to Sleep

Obviously, if someone with bipolar is experiencing a manic episode and is extremely excited and “pumped up” they will have trouble sleeping.

They may also experience this when feeling depressed as their mind might have trouble turning off to let them rest. Someone with bipolar disorder may have trouble sleeping all the time or just periodically.

They may be considered “night owls” and may rely heavily on caffeine to stay awake and function during the day.


Being impulsive as another typical symptom of the manic phase of bipolar disorder. Those struggling with this might shop impulsively, or abuse drugs or alcohol.

They might have rocky relationships because of their impulses and may have a hard time dealing with debt as a result as well.

Gambling is also a prime example of the form of impulse someone struggling through a manic episode might experience.

While gambling isn’t an issue for many, some might find some sort of needed release through the impulse and excitement that gambling offers.


It is also common for those struggling with bipolar to often seem unfocused and distracted. In this case, some people will take certain medications prescribed to those with ADHD.

People suffering with this symptom during the manic phase of bipolar might experience difficulty keeping a job or completing daily tasks that require their complete attention.

Lack of Appetite

When someone is experiencing the highs of excitement, joy, rage and impulsiveness, it is typical that they may not have much of an appetite during this time.

Lack of appetite during the manic phase is the opposite of what may be seen in the following depression phase, although some experience lack of appetite while depressed.

what is bipolar disorder

While it’s natural and healthy to sometimes have fluctuating appetites depending on what your body is going through, the loss of appetite that is sometimes seen with the manic phase of bipolar can cause much more harm than a typical fluctuating appetite.

Someone with this symptom might experience weight gain due to metabolic issues which could lead to weight related health problems eventually.

Symptoms of the Depression Phase

Emotional Pain

As is typical with experiencing depression, feelings and thoughts involving guilt and shame are common.

The individual might feel guilty for things they shouldn’t such as having bipolar disorder and getting depressed. They might carry shame over this and feel as though they are a burden to their loved ones.

Extreme lows and sadness are common during this time as well.

The struggling individual might think negatively of themselves for “being this way”. They might experience hopelessness or thoughts is suicide as well.

Extreme Anxiety

Struggling with anxiety and panic attacks is often seen during the depression part of bipolar. The individual might be triggered by certain experiences or they might be living in anxious fear of their next panic attack.

If you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety and/or panic attacks, you know how debilitating those experiences might be.

An individualized program (like this one from Panic Away) can help you discover the cause behind your triggers and address your fear and anxiousness head on.

By doing this, you can pinpoint key events in the cycle of anxiety in order to break it.

Increased Appetite

While it is much more common for those experiencing an episode of depression to have an increased appetite, sometimes a lack of appetite is seen here instead.

Depending on the individual and everything they’re experiencing, they may consume much larger amounts of food than normal.

Sleep Issues

Not only could lack of sleep be an issue, but sleeping too much could be a symptom during the depression phase as well.

When someone feels hopeless and extremely down, they will be mentally and emotionally fatigued which will manifest itself as physical exhaustion.

Over sleeping and sleeping during the day are often seen as well.

Detached and/or Distracted

Being detached from daily activities and not wanting to do everyday tasks is another sign of the depressive stage in bipolar disorder.

Someone might experience trouble at work due to how distracted and unengaged with their work they may feel. At home, they might feel the need to isolate themselves.

Living with someone struggling with this part of depression might feel lonely and you may feel as though they are pushing you away.

During this phase, it’s helpful to let your loved one know that you’re there for them. They may want their own space or to avoid social gatherings and stay home with a close friend/partner.


When someone is experiencing extreme sadness and discomfort, it is typical for them to become irritable. As humans, we very much dislike discomfort.

It’s a survival tactic that is “hard-wired” into us. As a result, if depression persists, someone struggling with that much pain day after day will become irritable and annoyed easily.

They may get uncomfortable or annoyed by the smallest things. Typical noises such as road construction, slamming doors, or people talking might seem to really bother them.

They might lash out or overreact to something that most people wouldn’t really notice. They’re uncomfortable and everything they’re experiencing will seem heightened because of this. 

Treatment Options for Bipolar Disorder


Talk therapy with a professional counselor is often used as a treatment option with those suffering from bipolar.

This is effective because a counselor understands behavioral patterns and can help you dig up the cause of how your bipolar developed or what could be making it worse than it could be.


As briefly mentioned above, depending on the individual case, sometimes medications are suggested as a form of treatment.

This could be the case if a chemical imbalance is present or if anxiety medication is required. There are plenty of cases where the use of medication is not necessary for treatment.

It’s important to understand your  individual needs, talk to your doctor and do your own research to see what could be right for you.

Lifestyle Changes

If you’re working toward a healthier state of mind, a healthy body/lifestyle will benefit you. When you choose healthy foods and exercise, your body is able to function it’s best.

This includes brain function and emotions as well. Having a morning routine can help with implementing good habits such as these. 

Journaling, meditating and practicing gratitude can improve your mood and emotional state. The more focused you are on treating your mind and body right, the faster you’ll see results with your individualized treatment plan.

Being proactive about mental and emotional health is the foundation of a long term health and improvement of quality of life.

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More from the Blog…

Resources and Helpful Articles

nhs.uk – More on symptoms of Bipolar Disorder


Hi, I'm Marissa! I'm passionate about mental and emotional health and want to share what I've learned over the years with others! I've seen first hand how mental health struggles can cause serious issues within relationships, work life, daily productivity, self-worth and more! I truly believe that we owe it to ourselves to bring more awareness to these life changing topics. Start your mental/emotional health journey by learning more today!

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