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Understanding Bipolar Disorder: Symptoms, Types, and Treatments

6 min read

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by Dr. Kurt Hong

Senior woman comforting her husband with bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a severe mood disorder that affects nearly 5.7 million adult Americans. It is characterized by intense mood fluctuations.

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A person with bipolar disorder can experience extreme emotions that range from feeling normal to depressed to hyperactive moods. Episodes of feeling “high” (mania) or “low” (depression) can often last several days or longer.

There can be various risk factors of developing bipolar disorder, including a traumatic life event, history of alcohol abuse, or genetic predisposition, like having a sibling or parent with bipolar disorder. So, is this disorder treatable, or is it a lifelong disease? In this article, we will discuss all the details of this condition, including the symptoms, types, and treatment options. 

What Is Bipolar Disorder? 

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is an intense mood disorder that involves mood swings that range from extreme lows to extreme highs (mania). 

Mania is defined as an abnormally altered or irritable mood with extreme changes in emotions, mental well-being, overall behavior, and energy levels. 

Hypomania is a milder form of mania that lasts for a shorter duration and is less severe than mania. It can still last a few days, but the length can vary depending on the patient.

Bipolar disorder involves episodes of mania or hypomania that can disrupt your daily life activities.


The symptoms of bipolar disorder are categorized into three major emotional states:

  • Depressive mood characterized by hopelessness, sadness, low energy, etc.
  • Extreme euphoria (energetic, irritable, or very happy and elated) mood
  • Normal or neutral mood (euthymia)

Some of the common symptoms include:

  • Mood swings or unusual mood shifts
  • Hopelessness
  • Extreme sadness or depression that disrupts your day-to-day tasks
  • Loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Irritability
  • Low energy 
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Increased or fast speech
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling tearful or upset
  • Euphoria (suddenly shifting to an energetic or happy mood)

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3 Common Types Of Bipolar Disorder 

The 3 common types of bipolar disorder include:

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Bipolar I Disorder

A bipolar I disorder, the most severe type of bipolar disorder, is indicated when you have at least one manic episode (mania) in your entire life with or without depression that disrupts your daily life activities and lasts for at least one week.

Bipolar II Disorder  

Bipolar II disorder is when you have at least one big episode of depression with at least one hypomanic episode but no manic attack. People with Bipolar II disorder often seek treatment first for their depression, since hypomanic episode may feel pleasurable, without adverse impact on life.

Cyclothymic Disorder 

Cyclothymic disorder is a less severe type of mood illness compared to bipolar I and bipolar II disorder. It involves shorter episodes of both hypomanic and depressive symptoms but consists of many mood swings. Symptoms need to last for at least 2 years or longer. Cyclothymic disorder can progress to bipolar I or bipolar II.

Treatment Options 

Although, in most cases, bipolar disorder is a lifelong disease, there are several treatment options that help manage its symptoms and improve the patient’s quality of life. 

The treatment of bipolar disorder depends on the intensity of the disease. Medications and psychological support/counseling are the two major treatments given to bipolar patients.


There are numerous medications available that help manage and reduce the symptoms of bipolar disorder. They are prescribed according to the patient’s condition. 

For example, a patient with major depressive illness (depression) in bipolar disorder is generally prescribed antidepressants (along with a mood stabilizer, if needed). Similarly, a patient with frequent manic or hypomanic episodes may be given a mood stabilizer or relaxant medication to calm the brain.

For patients with persistent manic and depressive episodes despite treatment with mood stabilizer or depressant/anxiety medications, alternative (or combined) treatment using an antipsychotic medication may be given.

The following are the medications prescribed to treat bipolar disorder:

  • Antidepressants (together with a mood stabilizer)
  • Anti-anxiety medication
  • Antipsychotics
  • Mood stabilizers 

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Psychotherapy is a crucial part of bipolar disorder treatment that can be given alone or in combination with medications. It involves verbal communication with the patient by a healthcare professional to provide emotional support, typically involving a therapist or psychiatrist.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), individual psychoeducation, interpersonal therapy, or family therapy are common types of psychotherapy given to patients suffering from bipolar disorder to improve their mental health and quality of life.

These talk therapies involve patient counseling and offer mental support. They work by changing the way the patient behaves and thinks. For instance, CBT may help a bipolar patient identify triggers and the emotional reaction to these triggers. The therapy can then teach the patient to replace these reactions with more objective and balanced thoughts.

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