Understanding bipolar disorder

It can be tough to cope, but with the right support, things can get better.

Most people who develop bipolar disorder will have experienced symptoms by the age of 25.

‘Normal’ emotions vs bipolar disorder

It’s normal to experience a range of emotions in our lives. Emotions can be affected by the things going on around us, things going on with friends or family, stressful events, or sometimes by nothing at all.

These ups and downs are common and generally don’t cause too many problems. They can build our resilience, help us to learn how to manage difficult situations, and prepare for any highs and lows of the future.

Bipolar is different to general mood changes or anger outbursts. Someone experiencing symptoms of bipolar is going through specific challenges that are having a bigger impact on them.

Dealing with bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a type of mood disorder in which people have times of low mood (clinical depression) and times of ‘high’ or elevated mood (mania).

These episodes or changes last at least a week and affect the way a person thinks, feels and acts. This can interfere with relationships, activities, work or study and day-to-day living.

The experience of bipolar disorder is different for everyone. Although some people have only one or two episodes and then never have another one, some people have several episodes close together. Many people have years without symptoms between episodes of becoming unwell, living full productive lives. 

Often a depressive episode (or episodes) happens before a manic episode is experienced, but it depends on the individual.

 

Bipolar episodes

What is a depressive episode?

A depressive episode is a period of lowered mood, with changes in thinking and behaviour that usually lasts for at least two weeks. It has a significant impact on a person’s day-to-day life.

Changes include:

  • feeling in a low mood – sadness, irritability, tearfulness

  • losing interest in enjoyable activities

  • changes in appetite and weight – eating more or less than usual, gaining or losing weight rapidly

  • changes in sleeping patterns – trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping much more than usual

  • lowered energy and lack of motivation

  • feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness

  • poor concentration and memory problems

  • thoughts about suicide.

What is a manic episode?

A manic episode is a period of constant and unusually elevated (‘high’) or irritable mood and a noticeable increase in energy or activity.

This generally lasts at least one week and is very different from someone’s normal state. It leads to a range of difficulties that have a big impact on a person’s daily life.

When someone is having a manic episode, they may experience:

  • Elevated mood. Feeling euphoric, ‘high’ or ‘on top of the world’, or very irritable.

  • Less need for sleep. Sleeping very little without feeling tired.

  • More energy, activity and drive. Having lots of projects or plans, walking long distances, being always ‘on the go’.

  • Racing thoughts and rapid speech. Thoughts speeding around from topic to topic, speech that’s difficult for others to follow.

  • Being disinhibited. Engaging in high-risk behaviours that are out of character and potentially harmful, like sexual risk-taking, driving too fast, abusing alcohol or other drugs, or spending large amounts of money.

  • Inflated self-esteem. Ranging from uncritical self-confidence to ‘grandiose’ beliefs (e.g. the person saying they have special powers or talents).

  • Psychotic symptoms. For example, hearing or seeing things that are not real (i.e. hallucinations) or having intensely strong beliefs about something that’s not real (i.e. delusions). These usually match the person’s elevated mood.

If someone is experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to take them seriously and ensure they access professional support. 

The experience of bipolar is different for everyone, and there are also different types of bipolar. Whether these experiences are pleasant or frightening, some people may be reluctant to get help. They may not believe that they’re unwell or that they need treatment. They may also be feeling very suspicious and/or confused, making it hard for them to trust others.

How can I get help?

Getting help early on is especially important for anyone experiencing symptoms of bipolar, as it can have a big impact on all areas of life.

Seeking support early can also reduce the likelihood that you’ll have problems in the future, and help you prepare to stay well and get through episodes.

A mental health professional, a general practitioner (GP) or a psychiatrist will work with you and important people in your life over time, to help you to understand your experiences and develop the most appropriate support plan.

A support plan will usually involve a combination of medication and psychological therapies. Your GP or psychiatrist can help you to find a medication that works for you. Psychological therapies can help you to understand your mood patterns, manage difficult thoughts and feelings, and develop a plan to avoid becoming unwell in the future.

These strategies usually include:

  • having regular patterns of sleeping and eating

  • looking after your overall health – getting regular exercise and eating healthy food

  • learning to manage stress

  • avoiding alcohol and other drugs 

  • keeping in contact with friends and supportive people in your life

  • getting a good balance of rest and activities

  • learning to recognise ‘warning signs’ that you may be becoming unwell.

Where can I get help?

To find a health professional that you trust and feel comfortable with, contact with your local community health centre, headspace centre, or perhaps ask a trusted friend, teacher or family member about where to find help.

Remember that it can take time to find the right treatment as every person is different and responds in different ways. Be patient and make sure you talk to your health professional about how things are going, so that they can support you in the best possible way.


The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

19 November 2018

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