Bipolar disorder

young woman sat in a cafe on her phone

Bipolar disorder is a commonly misunderstood mental condition, so what is bipolar disorder and how do you get it? The Mix explains the signs, symptoms and treatment and answers the most common questions.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder 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 are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder can sometimes be difficult to spot, due to the fact that many people experience mood swings – not to mention, it’s difficult to monitor changes in your own behaviour if you do have bipolar disorder. The two main symptoms are mania and depressive episodes.

What is mania?

Mania is best defined as a period of time when a person begins to make irrational decisions that they wouldn’t usually make. These decisions might feel good, but 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.
  • 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, which can begin to severely impact their life at school, in work or with friends.

The difference between manic and hypomanic symptoms

Hypomania is a milder version of mania characterised by periods of overactive and high energy behaviour that can still have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.

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. It’s different to depression in the sense that these feelings come in waves, and are often interchangeable with mania.

See our article on how to deal with suicidal thoughts.

Types of bipolar disorder

Whilst bipolar disorder is largely characterised by extreme mood swings, people suffering with it might experience the symptoms slightly differently and with varying severity. Because of this, you might be diagnosed with one of several types of bipolar disorder:

Bipolar 1

You might be diagnosed with Bipolar 1 if you’ve experienced at least one episode of mania. A person with Bipolar 1 might also go through depressive episodes but this doesn’t always happen.

Bipolar 2

If your doctor suggests that you might have Bipolar 2 disorder, you’ve likely experienced mania and at least one bout of severe depression.

Learn more about dealing with a bipolar 2 diagnosis

Cyclothymia and mild bipolar

A common question about bipolar disorder is, can you have mild bipolar disorder? The idea of mild bipolar comes from a condition called Cyclothymia. The symptoms of Cyclothymia are slightly different to Bipolar 1 and 2 in the sense that they might not be quite as severe (although it is still important to seek a diagnosis and treatment). However, if you’ve experienced both mania and depression over a two year period, then your doctor might still diagnose Cyclothymia. Whilst some people might refer to this as mild bipolar, it’s still a serious condition and not something to ignore.

Treatment for Cyclothymia might be similar to the treatment received by people with Bipolar Disorder and could include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and medication. 

Do I have bipolar disorder?

Everyone experiences mood swings from time to time – but bipolar disorder can really start to have an impact on your life if it remains undiagnosed. If your moods are extreme and you’re worried that it might be bipolar, 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 the condition. “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?

If you’ve been to a doctor or mental health specialist and have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it can feel very scary – you might also feel that your condition is out of your control and that you’ll have to manage your symptoms most days in your life. There are some things you can do yourself to help feel more in control of your moods.

How to cope with bipolar disorder

  1. 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.
  2. Talk: Don’t cut yourself off – share how you feel with friends and family members. Consider joining a local support group so you can chat to other people with bipolar. See our article on how to talk about your mental health.
  3. Exercise and eat well: Both can have a surprisingly positive effect on mental health.
  4. Keep track of your moods: Use a mood diary and mood scale to do this, like this one from BipolarUK
  5. Plan: Tell your friends and family how you’d like them to help you during manic and depressive episodes.

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 could involve counselling and/or medication such as mood stabilisers. They’ll be able to talk you through the options and help you decide what will work best for you.

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 diagnosis. 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 skyrocket 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.

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.

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

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.

How to support someone with bipolar disorder

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

  1. 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.”
  2. Don’t make assumptions: Trying to understand is great, but you have to accept there will be some things you just won’t get.
  3. Ask them what they need: When they’re doing well, ask them what they’d like you to do during episodes.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Get support yourself: Finding communities of people in your situation can help with feeling understood and less alone. You could contact SANE on 0300 304 7000 for support and advice or get in touch with Mind on 0300 123 3393.

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.

By Holly Turner

Updated on 22-Dec-2020