What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is mental illness which affects around 2% to 3% of the population. It affects both men and women equally.  It is characterised by people experiencing severe mood swings ranging from depression to mania.  However, people will often have long periods of stability in between episodes of illness.

Onset of the illness is often in adolescence or early adulthood, although diagnosis in late life is also common.

Bipolar disorder is often split into two diagnostic groups; bipolar 1 and bipolar 2.

It can take on average 10 years to be diagnosed from onset of symptoms for those affected by bipolar 2.

With bipolar 1 - the person will experience the full range of symptoms of mania and depression.

With bipolar 2 - the more extreme symptoms of mania are absent although the less severe symptoms know as hypomania will occur, as will the full range of depressive symptoms.

Moods are best viewed as a spectrum, with severe depression at one end and extreme elation at the other end. Within that spectrum most people will find themselves within the middle range at any given time.

In a manic phase (also known as a high phase), someone with bipolar disorder may have huge amounts of energy and feel little need for sleep. You may think and talk faster than usual, and your thoughts may jump rapidly from one subject to another, making conversation difficult. You may also have what are called 'grandiose' ideas or delusions about your abilities and powers, and a loss of judgement. People in a manic phase can get themselves into all sorts of difficulties that they would normally avoid – they may leave their job, spend money they don’t have, or give away all their possessions.

In a low (or depressive) phase, people feel hopeless, despairing and lethargic, become full of self-blame and self-doubt and have difficulty concentrating. This can make it difficult to cope with everyday life. You may want to withdraw from friends and social contacts, and may feel suicidal.

 

Prevention

There are also some things you can do that can help stop you going high:-

  • Take control. Be aware of how you are feeling and when you are heading towards mania or hypomania so that you can plan for and reduce the worst effects.
  • Sleeping tablets and tranquillisers may help if taken early on, but be careful not to overdo this.
  • Get plenty of rest, even if you don’t really feel like it.
  • Cancel most of your plans for the next few weeks. The less you have to think about the better.
  • Avoid stimulants, like alcohol, coffee and any kind of recreational drugs.

There are a number of things you can do to help manage depressive phases:-

  • Take control. Some people find it helps if they have some control over what happens to them. This helps to guard against the hopelessness associated with depression.
  • Set small and manageable goals - this can give you a sense of achievement and make you feel better.
  • Keep in touch with your friends. If you are already depressed you may find it very difficult to be sociable, and this can make you feel more depressed.
  • Keep active. Exercise can be very helpful in counteracting depression.
  • Review your diet. People who are depressed may have low levels of certain essential fatty acids that are found in fish oils.
  • Try self-help techniques - for example, meditation and listening to music.
     

Treatments

Depressive episodes, if untreated, last for about six months to one year. On average, someone with bipolar will have five or six episodes over a 20-year period. With treatment, most depressive episodes clear in about three months, but if treatment is stopped before six months of full recovery, the risk of relapse is doubled. The depression may also be treated with anti-depressants and talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling.

The most common treatment during high phases is lithium carbonate, a mood stabilising drug. It is also sometimes prescribed to people with severe depression. High levels of lithium in the blood are dangerous, so anyone taking lithium must have regular blood tests.
 

What can I do to help myself?

There are various things you can do to minimise the effect of the illness which broadly come under the heading of “self-management”. These are techniques which have proved to be effective and which many people practice. You can take control of your illness to the best of your ability and live a more stable, fulfilling life as a result. Some advice for good mental and physical health is to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and get a good night’s sleep. There is a lot of evidence to show that these are the fundamentals to achieving better mental health. In addition try to maintain a good life routine, balanced in work, leisure and relationships.
 



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