What is bipolar disorder?

What is bipolar disorder? << Go Back

There isn't any other mood disorder / mental health condition that's as difficult for observers to make sense of quite like bipolar disorder. That's understandable, as it's hard to understand how a person can go from being so emphatically 'up' to then being so extremely 'down' with such suddenness. If someone were to ask 'what is bipolar disorder' that's pretty much a spot-on definition of it - severe mood and outlook instability that is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain and where the individual has no ability to control it. If we are to look at this in depth then we'll also need to define what is bipolar 1 disorder and what is bipolar 2 disorder.

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We’ll do that here, as well as provide an overview of bipolar disorder symptoms and how bipolar disorder (aka manic depression) is treated. While all degenerative mental health conditions carry a degree of severity to them, bipolar disorder is particularly concerning because there are a whole host of other harmful conditions that can stem from it.

Bipolar Disorder Causes

The causes of bipolar disorder aren’t entirely clearly understood, but researchers believe that the brain imbalances that make people prone to it are hereditary most of the time. This means that a person’s susceptibility to this mental health disorder is something inherited from one of their parents or from previous generations on either side of the family. 

Bipolar disorder usually surfaces when a person is in their teenage years or early adulthood, and part of what makes it so problematic is that it’s common for the condition to be dismissed for a considerable period of time before the person is directed towards treatment and / or therapy.

Bipolar Disorder Symptoms

Everybody has ups and downs, but when those ups and downs become ‘peaks’ and ‘valleys’ the person moves between them with great speed and unpredictability then that’s the basics of ‘what is bipolar disorder?’ Especially when it’s paired with the understanding that, again, the individual is unable to exert any level of control over this. Hypomania or manic episode is the term used for the ‘up’ period of elevated mood and positive outlook in bipolar disorder. During this period the individual is often abnormally energetic, happy, and cheery.

The low always comes following the high, however, and the depressive episode in bipolar disorder involves inwards and outwards sadness, irritability, hopelessness, and a very negative perspective on life and human interaction. One important thing to understand about this condition is that most sufferers are in depressive episodes more frequently than they are in hypomanic ones.

Manic episode symptoms (hypomania) with bipolar disorder include:

  • Feeling unexplainably ‘high’ and optimistic OR extremely irritable
  • Sleeping for very few hours but still be very energetic
  • Unrealistically grand belief in their abilities or powers
  • Rapid speech that is difficult to follow
  • Racing thoughts where the person frequently jumps from one subject / idea to the next
  • Easily distracted and unable to concentrate
  • Reckless action taken without regard for consequences
  • Impaired judgement and impulsiveness
  • In severe cases, delusions and hallucinations

Depressive episode symptoms (bipolar depression) include:

  • Feeling hopeless, sad, or despondent
  • Strong irritability
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Physical and mental sluggishness
  • Fatigue or loss or energy
  • Sleep problems
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • In severe cases, thoughts of death or suicide

Mixed Episodes and Rapid Cycling

Our discussion of what is bipolar disorder must also include details on mixed episodes bipolar disorder and rapid cycling. As the name suggest, a mixed episode of bipolar disorder is where the person has symptoms of both mania and depression at the same time. The high and energy and low mood dynamic with a mixed episode makes it one where there is an increased risk of the person doing self-harm to themselves.

Rapid cycling is where the individual experiences four or more episodes of mania or depression within a 12-month period. Mood swing occur quickly over a period of days or even hours. Rapid cycling is usually seen when a person is not receiving treatment for their bipolar disorder.

Bipolar 1 Disorder

What is bipolar 1 disorder, and how is it different from standard bipolar disorder? Good question, and in fact bipolar 1 disorder is the standardly seen form of bipolar disorder. The individual will have at least one manic or mixed episode that is then usually – but not always – followed by at least one depressive episode.

The majority of people who suffer from bipolar disorder experience bipolar 1 disorder.

Bipolar 2 Disorder

What is bipolar 2 disorder then? It’s different, and here the person doesn’t experience full-blown manic episodes. Instead, it usually is that they have episodes of hypomania followed by severe depression. Bipolar 2 disorder isn’t quite as common as bipolar 1, but it’s also not uncommon.

Cyclothymia

Cyclothymia is a milder form of bipolar disorder where the person experiences cyclical mood swings but benefits from having symptoms that are less severe than full-blown mania or depression.

Bipolar Disorder Treatment

The standard course of treatment for people with bipolar disorder is to put the individual on medication and then having them participate in psychotherapy, usually under the guidance of a qualified mental health care professional.

Common medications for bipolar disorder include Abilify (Aripiprazole), Carbolith (Lithium Carbonate), Doxepin (Generic), Seroquel (Quetiapine), and Zyprexa (Olanzapine). All are available only with a prescription and it’s important to only take these medications exactly as directed by a physician and / or pharmacist.

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IMPORTANT NOTE: The above information is intended to increase awareness of health information and does not suggest treatment or diagnosis. This information is not a substitute for individual medical attention and should not be construed to indicate that use of the drug is safe, appropriate, or effective for you. See your health care professional for medical advice and treatment.

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