Bipolar Disorder Information – Causes & Effects

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness with symptoms that include alternating manic phases, which are characterized by extreme emotional highs, and depressive episodes, which involve dramatic emotional lows. In most cases, these phases occur separately, though some people experience mixed state episodes that involve the presence of both symptoms.

Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Learn about bipolar disorder

Bipolar-related mood swings can vary in duration and intensity, and can occur without an obvious cause. The two distinct phases of bipolar disorder are reflected in the former name of the illness, manic depression.

There are three types of bipolar disorder:

Bipolar I: This version of bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme manic and depressive episodes of varying lengths and severity.

Bipolar II:  This type of bipolar disorder includes severe depressive episodes and at least one hypomanic phase, which is similar but less severe than the manic phases experienced by those who have bipolar I.

Cyclothymic disorder (also sometimes called cyclothymia): In this type of bipolar disorder, the manic and depressive episodes are both milder than those that occur in bipolar I or II and have occurred for at least two years.

Everyone has days when they feel more energetic or a bit down, however, the mania and depression associated with bipolar disorder are much more severe than this. Those suffering from bipolar disorder experience these ups and downs to the point that one’s ability to function in everyday life is impaired. With proper professional treatment, though, people who struggle with one of the types of bipolar disorder can deal with their symptoms in a healthy way that will allow them to pursue a productive and satisfying future.


Bipolar disorder statistics

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that between 5.5 and 6 million adults are diagnosed with bipolar disorder each year in the United States. About half of all cases of bipolar disorder occur before the patient has reached age 25. Both men and women can suffer from this disorder and do so in relatively equal numbers.

Data collected by the NIMH also indicates that just under half of all people who have bipolar disorder are receiving professional treatment for their condition, with about 20% receiving what the NIMH classifies as treatment that is not fully adequate.

Experts estimate that between 20% and 50% of bipolar disorder sufferers will attempt suicide at least once. Because of the high prevalence of suicide, individuals who have bipolar disorder have a lifespan that is about nine years shorter than those in their demographic group who do not struggle with this condition.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for bipolar disorder

There is no single cause that definitively leads to the development of bipolar disorder. However, the following risk factors could increase the likelihood that a person will experience this condition:

Genetic: According to the NIMH, more than 60% of people suffering from bipolar disorder have at least one close relative, usually a parent or sibling, who has also struggled with either bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. Researchers who studied genetic information from more than 23,000 research subjects, including more than 9,000 bipolar disorder sufferers, have identified five genetic regions that appear to play a role in determining whether or not a person will develop bipolar disorder.

Environmental: Bipolar disorder can also be triggered or preceded by certain environmental factors, including a dramatic or traumatic life event, if the individual possesses a genetic predisposition for the illness. Though scientists do not completely understand the role that environment can play in bipolar disorder, many experts believe that external occurrences may activate previously dormant bipolar disorder symptoms in people who are genetically predisposed to develop this condition.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder
  • Experiencing high degrees of stress and/or pressure (if there exists a genetic predisposition for the illness)
  • Abusing alcohol or other drugs

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder

The primary characteristic of bipolar disorder is that sufferers cycle between manic highs and crushing lows. The following are among the more specific signs and symptoms that may indicate that a person is dealing with one of the forms of bipolar disorder:

Behavioral symptoms (manic episodes):

  • Rapid speech
  • Dramatic increase in energy
  • Restlessness
  • Reckless or risky actions
  • Impulsivity
  • Increase in goal-oriented activities
  • Making unrealistic plans for the future

Behavioral symptoms (depressive episodes):

  • Extreme fatigue and lethargy
  • Restlessness
  • No longer participating in activities that the person usually finds important or pleasurable
  • Withdrawal from family, friends, and other associates

Physical symptoms (manic episodes):

  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Voracious appetite
  • High sex drive

Physical symptoms (depressive episodes):

  • Fatigue, exhaustion, and lethargy
  • Excessive need for sleep
  • No appetite
  • Psychomotor agitation
  • Decreased sex drive

Cognitive symptoms (manic episodes):

  • Racing mind
  • Unrealistically positive expectations for the future
  • Easily distracted
  • Heightened state of alertness

Cognitive symptoms (depressive episodes):

  • Problems with concentration
  • Memory problems
  • Recurrent thoughts of death

Psychosocial symptoms (manic episodes):

  • Extreme enthusiasm
  • Sense of grandiosity
  • Overconfidence

Psychosocial symptoms (depressive episodes):

  • Expressions of feeling shame and guilt
  • Obsession with death, especially talking about or attempting suicide
  • Feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and despair


Effects of bipolar disorder

The impact of bipolar disorder can be felt in virtually all areas of a person’s life, as well as in the lives of others who care about or are dependent upon the individual suffering from bipolar disorder. Effects commonly experienced by individuals who have bipolar disorder may include the following:

  • Self-harm
  • Suicide
  • Damage to or strain on interpersonal relationships
  • Failure at work, with the possible ramification of job loss
  • Legal problems resulting from dangerous or reckless behaviors
  • Financial problems resulting from dangerous or reckless behaviors
  • Physical damage resulting from dangerous or reckless behaviors
  • Chemical dependence
  • Physical problems resulting from substance abuse
  • Diseases resulting from unsafe sexual practices

Co-Occurring Disorders

Bipolar disorder and co-occurring disorders

The following are among the disorders that commonly co-occur in individuals who are also dealing with bipolar disorder:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Sleep-wake disorders
Take an Assessment

We offer quick and anonymous online assessments to help gauge the severity of your or your loved one’s addiction or mental health disorder. Choose from the available assessments below.