What Does Bipolar Look Like?

therapist talking to client

Bipolar disorder is more than just good days and bad days. It’s a mental health disorder that can impair a person’s normal routine. The highs of mania are distressingly high and often include any number of unpleasant repercussions. The lows of depression are crushing, sometimes even life threatening.

During manic phases a patient may feel excessively exuberant. Their energy-level is high and their perceived need for sleep is low. They feel optimistic – unaccountably so – about nearly everything. Because they feel invulnerable the person in the midst of a manic episode is prone to take risks, including acting out sexually, gambling, drug use, driving with abandon, going on shopping sprees they can’t afford or, worse, shoplifting.

The problem with mania is that the person feels so good that they see nothing wrong with their behavior. In order for these “up” periods to be true mania they must last for at least one week. In the best case scenarios, these are productive times for the person during which they can get much accomplished.

The periods of depression can be just as extreme. Nearly all patients find it difficult to function, feeling incapacitated. Their lack of motivation can extend to even the most basic of chores, such as bathing or changing clothes.

Tasks at work or home can seem impossible during a depressive phase. The person may sleep far too much, or may find it hard to sleep at all. Nothing brings the pleasure that it once did – not pets, friends, sex or food.

For it to be considered a depressive episode the depression must last two weeks at a minimum. During this time the person feels sad and hopeless nearly every day. Sometimes thoughts of suicide intrude and can’t be silenced. Indeed, it’s been reported that at least 25% of all suicides stem from untreated bipolar.

Thus, while otherwise healthy people may have a bad day or two or may experience a particularly good week, it is not really comparable to what is experienced by the person with bipolar disorder. For them, emotions don’t just come and go – they take over, and just as quickly vanish, only to be replaced by something at the opposite end of the spectrum. And some patients experience mixed episodes wherein symptoms of mania and depression swing rapidly back and forth.

Bipolar is an illness with a strong genetic component. If someone in the family had bipolar, the chances that someone else in the family will also have the illness are increased.

The disorder tends to first become noticeable during late adolescence or young adulthood, though it can strike earlier or later. To know for certain, it is best to seek out the advice of a trained clinician.

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