What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic-depressive illness, is a biological brain disorder that produces extreme psychological and emotional changes. These mood swings are so severe that if left untreated, they often become an obstacle to living a normal and happy life. This disorder affects all aspects of a person's life, from family to friendships to work.

While everyone goes through periods of ups and downs, bipolar disorder heightens and intensifies these ups and downs to the extreme. A person suffering from this condition not only feels "sad", but completely hopeless, ineffective and not vital. These feelings of intense depression often lead to suicidal thoughts or an obsession with suicide.

The manic or "high" end of bipolar also greatly exaggerates reality. Extreme energy and exuberance, visions of grandeur and illusions of being all-powerful are common. Although the person may feel empowered, practical dividends are rare. Ideas race through the mind and focus is limited or impossible. The personality is often unusually verbose, self-aggrandizing, and sexually aggressive or promiscuous in inappropriate situations and circumstances.

While those close to the sufferer often confuse the lows of bipolar disorder with common depressive episodes, the highs can be more alarming. A person in the midst of a manic mood swing may appear psychotic to the point of potentially being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.

Those who suffer from bipolar disorder go through life from one state to another. Between manic and depressive states, there is often a period of normalcy. For some, the manic mood may be less pronounced than the depressive mood. The length of time for complete cycles also varies, and a cycle may take a week or more, or someone may experience many cycles in a single day. This is known as fast cycling .

Medical experts report that bipolar disorder can occur in any age group. Children of parents with the condition who develop it themselves tend to cycle rapidly, which sometimes makes diagnosis difficult in the context of other childhood behavior problems. Fortunately, there are many treatment options for the disorder. Mood-stabilizing medications, talk therapy, and other regimens can make the difference between living life on a roller coaster ride and regaining the ability to be stable and happy. Treatment is ongoing as the disorder is not cured but managed.

Although scientists don't yet know what causes bipolar disorder, they do acknowledge that it runs in families. A genetic component is likely to be part of a larger interaction of several factors, as evidence suggests that it is not just genetic. One twin, for example, might have the disease while the other does not.

Millions of people suffer from bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the United States, approximately 1% of the American population is affected. Some famous people who have been outspoken about having it include Anna Marie "Patty" Duke, Linda Hamilton, Jean-Claude VanDamme, Kristy McNichol, Dick Cavett, and Buzz Aldrin.

Threats or talk of suicide should always be taken seriously. Anyone suffering from extreme moods or depression should see a medical professional without delay.

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