Bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression or bipolar illness) is a mental illness which can cause extreme changes in mood and behaviour. In this condition there are periods where your mood will be in one extreme or another. On one end of the scale is depression which will cause you to feel low and experience other symptoms. And on the other end is mania, where you will feel happy or elated. Bipolar disorder affects around one in 100 people at some stage in life.

During a manic phase people affected by bipolar disorder will experience feelings of euphoria and may become hyperactive. Some sufferers even experience delusions of grandeur. They may find that they are more talkative than usual and become easily distracted. Making rash decisions such as spending lots of money, taking illegal drugs or drinking an excess of alcohol are common. When in the depressed state there are usually feelings of sadness with some patients experiencing suicidal thoughts. Several symptoms of depression will be displayed but not every symptom occurs in each case.

Common symptoms in the depressed state include a loss of interest in activities that you’d normally enjoy and a constantly low mood. Feelings of guilt or worthlessness coupled with poor motivation are also usual. Many sufferers experience sleeping problems such as insomnia or sleeping excessively. This can lead to a lack of energy or cause you to constantly feel tired. Another symptom common to the depressed state is a poor appetite and resulting weight loss. It’s understandable then that sufferers often feel agitated or irritable. Physical symptoms also appear often, with headaches, chest pains and palpitations being the most commonly reported.

Bipolar disorder will last for life but every case is different and there’s no ‘usual’ pattern to the mood swings. Some may experience many mood swings within a short period whereas in other cases there may be only a couple in a lifetime. Without treatment the symptoms will continue unpredictably. But the average length for an episode is around four to nine months.

There’s a number of medical and psychological techniques used to treat Bipolar disorder. And medicines will usually be used in order to prevent episodes of mania or depression. These are known as mood stabilisers and are usually taken daily. Amongst the most used medication for bipolar disorder is Lithium which is taken as a tablet and has been in use for many years. Anticonvulsant medicines, usually used to treat epilepsy, have been found to work on bipolar disorder too. Although it’s unclear how these medications work on the condition both are shown to have positive effects. Antispychotic medication is also used to treat episodes of mania and once the symptoms have passed they’re usually stopped. They are not normally used as long-term mood stabilisers.

Antidepressant medication is shown to relieve symptoms of bipolar disorder in around seven out of 10 cases. Such medication may not work straight away and a common problem is stopping the medicine before the effects have been fully achieved. If you’re prescribed antidepressants then you should continue taking them as it will take time to build them up to an effective level. Another option for treating depression is Cognitive therapy, which aims to change behaviour and emotional responses. Regular exercise has also been shown to ease the symptoms of depression.

A diagnosis of bipolar disorder is based on self-reported experiences from the patient and family members. Observation by a psychiatric professional is commonly used to eliminate other mental disorders with similar symptoms (including schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder). A physical examination may also be necessary. Although you can’t confirm the presence of bipolar disorder with these tests, they can exclude medical illnesses such as hyperthyroidism.

Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally and factors such as race have not been found to influence it’s rate. A low social or economic status has been linked to a slightly higher rate of the disorder. The average age for the onset of Bipolar Disorder is around the early 20’s although in some cases symptoms can develop much earlier. Genetics have some influence over the chance of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And it is more likely to develop in those who have a relative with the illness.

If you are diagnosed with Bipolar disorder there are many things you can do to help your condition. Most people respond to medications used individually or in combination. And only a very small amount of patients are unresponsive to this treatment. Try to avoid drinking too much alcohol or taking illegal drugs, which may trigger episodes of mania. If you’re prescribed a mood stabiliser, stopping the medication early may also trigger an episode. If you experience side effects from the medication then consult your doctor, the dosage can often be changed. Be open with your family and friends about your condition. They may be able to tell if you are becoming ill even when you don’t realise it yourself.