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What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder causes extreme ups and downs in a person’s mood and energy. People have low-energy moods of depression and high-energy moods called mania (also called manic moods).

Just about everyone goes through ups and downs in their moods. Most of the time, mood changes do not mean a person has bipolar disorder.

But mood changes could be a sign of bipolar if they:

  • are extreme
  • include depressed moods and manic moods
  • have extreme effects on a person's energy, thinking, and behavior
  • cause big problems in a person’s daily life

If you’re worried about your moods, talk with your parent, doctor, or a mental health provider.

What to Do

How Does Bipolar Disorder Affect People?

At times, people with bipolar disorder go through depression. Other times, they go through manic moods. They may have normal moods in between.

When they go through depression, people with bipolar will:

  • have a sad or irritable mood that lasts for at least 2 weeks

Added to that, they may:

  • feel hopeless or worthless
  • feel tired, lack energy, or not get things done
  • have trouble concentrating
  • have trouble sleeping or sleep more
  • eat less or eat more
  • not enjoy things as before
  • pull away from others
  • have thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or wanting to die

When they go through a manic mood, people with bipolar will:

  • have a high-energy mood that lasts for 4-7 days

During this time, they will think and act in ways that are extreme for them. For example, they may:

  • have racing thoughts
  • speak fast, talk nonstop, or skip from topic to topic
  • have extreme energy, be hyperactive, or rush through things
  • stay awake for days, not seem to need sleep
  • act overly silly or overly happy
  • be reckless, take unsafe risks
  • lash out in anger
  • use poor judgment, do things they shouldn’t do
  • try risky behaviors
  • think of themselves in inflated ways or think they have superpowers

Going through these two types of extreme moods is hard on a person. Bipolar moods can make it harder to get along well with others. It can be a challenge to succeed at goals.

Bipolar can cloud people’s judgment and lead them to take unsafe risks. It can cause problems they didn’t expect and didn’t intend. Some people might be more likely to self-harm or try suicide. They may drink alcohol or use drugs.

That’s why it matters to get the right diagnosis and treatment for bipolar moods. It can help reverse or prevent problems like these.

Moods don’t have to run a person’s life. With treatment, people with bipolar can learn to manage their moods and symptoms. This helps them feel and do better in things that matter to them.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Bipolar Disorder?

There’s no blood test or medical test for bipolar disorder. To diagnose bipolar, a mental health doctor meets with you. They ask questions about your moods, thoughts, feelings, and health. They ask about how you’re doing in your life and problems you’re having. They listen and talk with you, and with your parent. They also check for other conditions that can cause mood symptoms. This can take a few visits.

If a doctor finds that you have bipolar, they will talk more about it with you. They will explain the treatment plan that can help you.

What Is the Treatment for Bipolar?

Treatment for bipolar includes medicines and talk therapy. Medicine can help keep moods stable. But by itself, medicine isn’t enough. A person with bipolar needs talk therapy, too.

Each person’s treatment is tailored to what they need. A type of talk therapy called DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) helps most people. In this therapy, people can learn skills to manage moods. For example, they can learn to:

  • become more mindful (and aware) of their emotions and thoughts
  • manage their emotions (instead of dwelling on painful emotions or trying to get rid of them)
  • cope with strong emotions in healthy ways
  • set up and follow routines that help keep moods stable
  • be patient and kind to themselves
  • care for themselves in positive ways
  • get along better with others

With time and practice, these skills can become part of a person’s daily life.

Therapy also includes making goals and working out ways to move toward them. In therapy, people track their progress. Many find strengths they didn’t know they had.

When possible, parents take part in treatment. This helps them understand bipolar moods and how to best respond. It can help families have less conflict, relate better, and feel closer.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

There is no single cause for bipolar disorder. Experts think that a mix of genes and stressful life events may lead to bipolar disorder.

Genes and a family history of bipolar make it more likely for a person to develop it. But not everyone with a family history of bipolar will develop the condition. Going through very stressful life events may increase the chances for some people who have the genes for bipolar.

If you think you have bipolar disorder, start by talking to a parent or other adult. Ask them to set up a visit with your doctor or a mental health provider. Getting the right treatment matters. Find mental health providers to support you and help you learn all you can.

Medically reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2022