What is it?

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that is characterised by swings in a persons mood from high to low. People with depression have periods of mania – feeling very high and overactive (less severe mania is called hypomania), and depression feeling very low and lethargic. About 1 in 100 people are diagnosed with bipolar disorder and it can occur at any age, but it often develops between the ages of 15-19.

There are different types of Bipolar Disorder:

  • Bipolar I – if you have a manic episode which has lasted longer than a week. You may only have manic episodes, although some people have episodes of depression. A manic episode usually lasts about 3-6 months (untreated). Depressive episodes last about 6-12 months (untreated).
  • Bipolar II – if you have had more than one episode of severe depression but only mild manic episodes (hypomania)
  • Rapid cycling – if you have more than four mood swings in a 12 month period. This affects around 1 in 10 people with bipolar disorder, and can happen with both types I and II.
  • Cyclothymia – when the mood swings are not as severe as those with full bipolar disorder, but these ones can last longer. This can develop into full bipolar disorder.

Symptoms of Mania

  • feeling uncontrollably excited, like you can’t get your words out fast enough
  • talking a lot, speaking very quickly, or not making sense to other people
  • being easily distracted, like your thoughts are racing
  • feeling like you are untouchable
  • sleeping very little or not at all
  • being rude or aggressive
  • misusing drugs or alcohol
  • spending money excessively

Hypomania differs a bit, it can feel more manageable e.g. you might feel able to go to work and socialise with others without any problems. It also doesn’t last as long and it doesn’t include any psychotic symptoms. Even though it’s less severe, it can still be very disruptive to your life and others may be able to notice a change in your mood and behaviour.

Symptoms of Depression

  • tired
  • low self-esteem/no confidence
  • problems sleeping or sleeping too much
  • misusing drugs or alcohol
  • being withdrawn
  • self-harming or attempting suicide

Episodes of bipolar disorder can also be mixed. During mixed episodes you experience symptoms of mania with symptoms of depression together or one soon after the other. This can be hard to cope with as it can be hard to understand how you are feeling and therefore hard to understand what kind of help you need.
Some people also experience psychotic symptoms including hallucinations (hearing, seeing or sensing the presence of things that are not really there) and delusions (false, strongly held beliefs e.g. paranoia).


People with bipolar disorder may find that they are able to link the start of their episodes to a period of high stress e.g. childbirth, money problems, a relationship breakdown etc. Some experts also believe that experiencing a lot of emotional trauma early in life e.g. physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, loss and trauma can be contributing factors.

There are also theories behind our brain chemistry – bipolar disorder is believed to be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain and there is some evidence that if there is an imbalance in the neurotransmitter levels, a person may develop some symptoms of bipolar. It is also thought that bipolar disorder is linked to our genetics as the condition seems to run in families, with family members of someone with bipolar having an increased risk of developing it, but of course, this isn’t always the case – and no one knows for certain… yet!

How can I help myself?

  • Keep a mood diary – it might also help if you keep a diary of your experiences so you can look back at it, identify triggers and then be able to anticipate stressful situations.
  • Identify your triggers – figure out what triggers stress for you. This will help you anticipate problems and think of solutions for them. Even if you can’t control the situation, being ready can help you minimise the impact!
  • Learn your warning signs – before an episode you might start to notice different patterns in the way you feel and how you behave. Being aware of this can help you ensure you have support systems in place.
  • Create a routine – having a routine can make things feel easier if your mood is high and can motivate you if your mood is low.
  • Look after your physical health – get some more sleep, choose a healthier diet and do some exercise!


Treatments include:

  • Medication – there are different medications available that have been found to effectively manage symptoms. If you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it is important to discuss your medication with your psychiatrist and explore the options available.
  • Talking therapies – such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which helps to deal with thoughts and behaviours. It can also help you to make sense of your bipolar, identify warning signs and develop coping strategies for your episodes.