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What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder sign

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression, is a serious mental illness characterized by periods of unpredictable and extreme shifts in mood, energy and activity levels
  • Unfortunately, bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition. Researchers have not yet found a permanent cure for it even though it’s one of the most researched mental disorders over the past years

Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression, is a serious mental illness characterized by periods of unpredictable and extreme shifts in mood, energy and activity levels. These periods are referred to as mood episodes. There are two different types of mood episodes: manic and depressive.

In a manic episode, you may experience increased activity and energy levels to the point that you feel you need very little sleep, along with episodes of agitation, impulsiveness and reckless decision-making.

On the other hand, a depressive episode may lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness, as well as sleeping problems in which you may not want to even get out of bed, and decreased activity levels when you are awake and up. These mood episodes may last for several weeks or months, and are usually separated by periods of normal mood.

Unfortunately, bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition. Researches have not yet found a permanent cure for it even though it’s one of the most researched mental disorders over the past years.1

A Look Back at the History of Bipolar Disorder

The hallmark symptoms of bipolar disorder were first documented during the first century in Greece, when Aretaeus of Cappadocia noted the link between mania and depression (which was referred to as melancholy in the past).2 Even the Greek philosopher Aristotle acknowledged melancholy as a condition that inspired many artists during his time.3

In the 17th century, Theophilus Bonet considered mania and melancholy as a single condition and referred to it as “manico-melancolicus.” This was an important step in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, since people considered mania and depression to be separate illnesses before.4

It wasn’t until 1851 that the first documented diagnosis of bipolar disorder was made by the French psychiatrist Jean-Pierre Falret. He referred to bipolar disorder as “la folie circulaire,” which translates to "circular insanity."5

Another milestone in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses was reached in 1921, when German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin recognized the difference between manic depression and schizophrenia. He’s also responsible for the classification of mental disorders, which is still currently used by professional associations.6

Today, centuries after bipolar disorder was first documented in medical history, researchers have made big leaps in the management of this condition. While there’s no available cure for it yet, there’s still a variety of treatment methods that may help patients gain control of their mood swings and live an almost normal life.7

Bipolar Disorder Is Linked to Creativity and Productivity

As mentioned above, melancholy or depression is acknowledged as the inspiration of some great artists in the past. Today, researchers have actually found a connection between genetics, creativity and bipolar disorder, which explains why a lot of creative people are diagnosed with this mental condition.

In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers analyzed the DNA of more than 86,000 people to determine their risk for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Results show that individuals who work in creative fields, such as dancing, acting and writing, are more likely to have the genetic predisposition for the mentioned mental illnesses.8,9

Moreover, there are many famous people with bipolar disorder in the field of music, arts and entertainment. These include painter Vincent Van Gogh, writer Ernest Hemingway, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and singer Demi Lovato.10,11 It’s important to note, though, that not everyone with bipolar disorder experiences tremendous creativity. The effects of manic and depressive episodes may vary for every patient.

Bipolar Disorder May Be Mistaken for Other Mental Illnesses

Since the hallmark symptoms of bipolar disorder are relatively similar to that of other mental illnesses, it’s not uncommon for doctors to misdiagnose this condition. To make matter worse, some cases of bipolar disorder also occur together with other mental problems, including anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse.12 Here are some of the common mental problems that bipolar disorder is usually mistaken for:13,14

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — The symptoms of ADHD are continuous and instantaneous, whereas the symptoms of bipolar disorder are episodic.

Borderline Personality Disorder — The mood cycles associated with borderline personality disorder are more rapid compared to the duration of bipolar episodes.

Depression — People with depression do not experience bouts of mania, which is characterized by excessive excitement, agitation and irritability.

Schizophrenia — The symptoms of schizophrenia emerge gradually and are characterized as progressive. On the other hand, bipolar disorder is characterized by a cycle of manic and depressive episodes.

Anxiety — People who are diagnosed with anxiety constantly experience overwhelming feelings of worry and fear — they do not experience manic episodes.

Substance Abuse — Substance abuse and bipolar disorder are easier to tell apart, since the former involves the use of alcohol and/or drugs.

When talking to your doctor, make sure that you carefully explain your symptoms in order to get the right diagnosis for your condition. Keep in mind that misdiagnosis may cause a delay of appropriate treatment, possibly increasing the severity and frequency of mood episodes.15


Bipolar Disorder: An Introduction

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar Disorder in Children

Bipolar Disorder Symptoms

Bipolar Disorder Causes

Bipolar Disorder Types

Bipolar Disorder Test

Bipolar Disorder Treatment

Bipolar Disorder Prevention

Living with Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder Diet

Bipolar Disorder FAQ

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