What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depressive illness, is a condition that affects more than two million Americans. People who have this illness tend to experience extreme mood swings, along with other specific symptoms and behaviors. These mood swings or "episodes" can take three forms: manic episodes, depressive episodes, or "mixed" episodes.
The symptoms of a manic episode often include elevated mood (feeling extremely happy), being extremely irritable and anxious, talking too fast and too much, and having an unusual increase in energy and a reduced need for sleep. It's also very common for someone to act impulsively during a manic episode, and engage in behaviors that are risky or that they later regret, like spending sprees. And in over half of all manic episodes, people are troubled by delusions or hallucinations. For example, they may think they have a relationship with someone famous, claim to be an expert in an area they really know nothing about, feel paranoid (unusually fearful), or hear voices that are not there.
The symptoms of a depressive episode often include an overwhelming feeling of emptiness or sadness, a lack of energy, a loss of interest in things, trouble concentrating, changes in normal sleep or appetite, and/or thoughts of dying or suicide.
A mixed episode includes symptoms that are both manic and depressive.
What causes it?
The symptoms of bipolar disorder are thought to be caused by an imbalance of key chemicals in the brain. The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells that move a constant stream of information from one to the other. To keep the information flowing, the cells release chemicals known as "neurotransmitters." Two key neurotransmitters that are needed for brain function are dopamine and serotonin, which play a crucial role in emotional health.
Many scientists believe that when the levels of these neurotransmitters aren't quite right, it may result in bipolar disorder. For instance, too much dopamine in certain parts of the brain can cause symptoms such as delusions, while too little dopamine in other parts of the brain can cause symptoms such as a lack of emotion and energy.
What can friends and family do if an episode occurs:
Family members and friends can help a person with bipolar disorder recover from a mood episode, recognize the warning signs of a new episode, and take medicine as prescribed. The involvement of family and friends can be as casual as calling regularly, or as involved as taking the person to appointments and helping with daily living.
Here are a few things family members and friends can do:
1. Encourage the person to stick with treatment. You can also encourage him or her to avoid harmful habits, like smoking or using alcohol or illegal street drugs.
2. Don't take it personally. Often, if your help is rejected during a mood episode, it is a symptom of the episode, not a true feeling.
3. Learn the warning signs of episodes. When you see them emerge, share your observations with your friend or loved one in a caring manner and suggest a call to a healthcare provider.
4. Share responsibility with others. This can reduce the stress that caring for someone with bipolar disorder brings and can prevent emotional fatigue or resentment.
5. Don't set the bar too high. When a person is recovering from an episode, don't expect too much or too little. Let the person recover at his or her own pace. Do things with the person instead of for the person.
6. Plan ahead. Take advantage of stable periods to make arrangements for the future. Discuss when to put plans into action, such as withholding credit cards, restricting bank accounts, hiding car keys, and heading for the hospital.
7. Learn the difference between a good day and a manic episode. People with bipolar disorder have good days and bad days like everyone else. With experience and attention, you can learn to spot the signs indicating that a bad day may have turned into a mood swing.
8. Take advantage of support groups. There are several resources available for families and friends of people with bipolar disorder. Find a resource center, assistance program, or the branch of a national advocacy group near you.