What is bipolar disorder?

What is bipolar disorder? The Mix looks at how bipolar can affect exams, work, your friends and your sex life.

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Understanding bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder – previously known as manic depression – is a mental illness characterised by extreme mood swings. Sufferers can experience episodes of energetic mania followed by bouts of crippling depression. These symptoms can last for several weeks, or much longer.

What is mania?

People experiencing bipolar mania may stop feeling the need to sleep, talk really quickly, be convinced they’re the best person in the world, take on loads of jobs or projects, and take more risks – especially sexual or financial ones. These feelings can become delusional; sufferers may imagine things that aren’t there or experience a different reality to everyone else.

What’s a depressive episode?

When a depressive episode kicks in sufferers can feel empty, worthless and guilty. They tend to sleep too much or not enough, and lose concentration and interest in daily life. This can lead to suicidal feelings.

Do I have bipolar?

If your moods go up and down don’t automatically assume you have bipolar. We all have mood swings sometimes. But if your moods are extreme and you’re worried, it’s always best to go and speak to your GP.

“If you’re diagnosed with bipolar it’s not the end of the world,” says Georgia, 23, who has bipolar. “You can get it under control and live a happy life. It’s not a life sentence, even though it sometimes feels that way.”

I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar, how can I help myself?

The first step to coping with bipolar is getting professional treatment. Talk to your doctor and psychiatrist about what treatment may be best for you. This may involve counselling and/or medication

There are also simple things you can do yourself to help feel more in control of your moods:

  • Sleep: Set yourself a sleep routine and stick to it – yes, even when you feel you don’t need any, or you can’t bear the thought of getting out of bed.
  • Talk: Don’t cut yourself off – share how you’re feeling with friends and family. Consider joining a local support group so you can chat to other people with bipolar. See ‘Next Steps’ at the end of this article for where to find these.
  • Exercise and eat well: Both can have a surprisingly positive effect on mental health.
  • Keep track of your moods: Use a mood diary and mood scale to do this, like this one from BipolarUK.
  • Plan: Tell your friends and family how you’d like them to help you during manic and depressive episodes.

How will bipolar affect exams and jobs?

Bipolar doesn’t mean you can’t still have a job that you love, or do well at school or university. But to manage this, you’ll have to put effort into looking after your mental health.

When it comes to exams don’t stay up all night studying. And if you’re working, think about how many hours you should do. Try working part-time at first then build up your hours if you can.

If you feel able to, tell your employer about your bipolar. As scary as that may seem, you have the right to fair treatment and it means you’ll get support.

How will bipolar affect my sex life?

Mood swings can make relationships difficult. Your sex drive might sky rocket during a manic episode, which can lead to some risky condom-forgetting behaviour. Or you might start some flirtatious texting, only to lose interest when your mania ends. Then depression can make you lose all interest in sex, or feel like no one will ever fancy you again.

For advice on how to juggle your condition with all things love/sex/dating related, take a look at our mental health and relationships advice.

Georgia says her boyfriend hasn’t been put off by her bipolar. “He says it’s great because he never knows what he’s going to get when he comes home,” she says.

How will bipolar affect my friendships?

“I’ve been really fortunate, my friends have been so understanding,” says Georgia. “But sometimes I let them down; I’m like two different people, which is unfair on them.”

Explain to your friends how bipolar affects your mood. Being honest can make you closer and give them the opportunity to talk about their mental health.

“Even when I thought I didn’t want to see people, seeing them anyway has really cheered me up,” says Georgia.

Someone I know has bipolar – how can I help them?

Just being there for someone with bipolar is the most important thing you can do. On top of that, here are some pointers:

  • Ask questions: “My friends spoke about it behind my back,” says Georgia. “Not in a bitchy way, but I wish they’d asked me what was going on.”
  • Don’t make assumptions: Trying to understand is great, but you have to accept there will be some things you just won’t get.
  • Ask them what they need: When they’re doing well, ask them what they’d like you to do during episodes.
  • Help them recognise their symptoms: Rather than saying: ‘You’re manic at the moment’, instead ask them if they think they’ve recognised any symptoms and talk it through.
  • Encourage them to get help: Try to get them to visit their GP on their own terms. However, if you think they’re in serious trouble, it may be worth reading our article on being sectioned.
  • Get support yourself: Finding communities of people in your situation can help with feeling understood and less alone. You could also contact SANE for support and advice.

Next Steps

  • SANE offers support and information to people affected by mental illness. Call their helpline on 0300 304 7000, open 4:30pm - 10:30pm every day.
  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


Updated on 29-Sep-2015