Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on October 20, 2020

If you have just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you might feel frightened. The future may seem terribly uncertain. What will this mean for your life, your family, and your job?

But getting an accurate diagnosis is actually good news. It means you can finally get the treatment you need. People with bipolar disorder usually go about 10 years before being accurately diagnosed.

Treatment can make a huge difference. With a combination of things -- good medical care, medication, talk therapy, lifestyle changes, and the support of friends and family -- you can feel better. Bipolar disorder -- or manic depression, as it is also still sometimes called -- has no known  cure. It is a chronic health condition that requires lifetime management.  Plenty of people with this condition do well; they have families and jobs and live normal lives.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

There are two main recognized types of bipolar disorder:

  • Type I causes periods of mania that often alternate with periods of depression. These periods might last for weeks or months and are usually separated by periods of wellness.
  • Type II causes periods of depression that alternate with a less severe form of mania called hypomania.

There are also other types of bipolar disorder. Cyclothymia is characterized by frequent but milder changes in your mood. "Unspecified" or "Other Specified"  bipolar disorder (formerly called "bipolar disorder not otherwise specified") is current terminology used to describe conditions in which a person has only a few of the mood and energy symptoms that define a manic or hypomanic episode, or the symptoms may not last long enough to be considered as clear-cut "episodes."

Rapid cycling is not a type of bipolar disorder but a term used to describe the course of illness in people with bipolar I or II disorder. It applies when mood episodes occur four or more times over a 1-year period. Women are more likely to have this type of illness course than men and it can come and go at any time in the course of bipolar disorder. Rapid cycling is driven largely by depression and carries an increased risk for suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Whatever type of bipolar disorder you have, there is a still lot of variation from person to person. While some people are beset with frequent mood swings, others go years or even decades before having another. Everyone's experience is different.

Why Me?

Bipolar disorder can make you feel utterly alone. But that really isn't the case. More than 2 million adults in the U.S. are coping with bipolar disorder right now.

It's important not to blame yourself for your condition. Bipolar disorder is a physical illness, not a sign of personal weakness. It's like diabetesheart disease, or any other health condition. Nobody knows what causes bipolar disorder, but for many people it is a very manageable condition.

The important thing is to focus on the future. Living with bipolar disorder can be tough. But don't let it hijack your life. Instead, take action and regain control of your health. With dedication and the help of your health care providers, you can feel better again.


WebMD Medical Reference


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Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Bipolar Disorder, 2002.
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Muller-Oerlinghausen, B. The Lancet, Jan. 19, 2002.
Kaufman, K. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry. June, 2003.
Compton, M. Depression and Bipolar Disorder, ACP Medicine.

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