We all experience shifts in our mood from time to time. We may feel happy or joyful in response to a pleasant surprise, or feel disappointed or angry in response to an unexpected challenge. However, if your mood shifts are extreme, more intense or longer-lasting than an average mood swing, or if they begin to cause problems for you or those around you, this may be a sign of mental illness. One of these illnesses is called bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder caused by changes in the brain chemicals that can affect your emotions and behavior.

People with bipolar disorder can experience “highs” and “lows” in their mood shifts. The mood shifts associated with bipolar disorder are not merely abrupt changes associated with positive or negative triggers. The mood changes associated with bipolar disorder last days to months, and are gradually noted by those around you. These mood changes can sometimes result in changes in one’s personality, behavior and judgment, with others noting you are not “yourself”.

“Highs”, referred to as hypomania or mania, can involve the following:

  • extremely elated or extremely irritable mood
  • feeling overconfident, or like you have “special powers”
  • feeling as if you do not need sleep for extended periods
  • talking really fast, often noted by people around you
  • racing thoughts
  • difficulty sustaining your attention
  • high levels of energy
  • taking on many projects, often not finishing them
  • engaging in harmful or impulsive behaviors that are out of character for you

“Lows”, referred to as depression, can involve the following:

  • depressed mood for most of the day, for weeks at a time
  • inability to feel pleasure during activities you once enjoyed
  • changes in your appetite or weight
  • changes in your sleep
  • low energy and motivation
  • a low sense of self worth
  • poor concentration
  • suicidal thoughts

Mental illnesses are caused by a number of factors, and these factors are often broken down into categories including biological, psychological, social and spiritual. There is no one single cause for mental illness, as they often develop due to a number of risk factors combined.

Risk factors for developing bipolar disorder include:

  • genetic risks such as family history of bipolar disorder
  • childhood trauma
  • high amounts of stress and adversity
  • substance abuse

There is no blood test or brain scan that can diagnose bipolar disorder.

Diagnosis is made by discussing your symptoms with your care provider.

There are a number of disorders that may share symptom overlap with bipolar disorder. Assessment by your care provider can help sort out your personal experience.

Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, can present with sudden and intense mood shifts. These mood shifts are often triggered by positive or negative occurrences in our environment.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also present with abrupt mood shifts, impulsivity, high levels of energy and difficulty sustaining attention.

Substance abuse, posttraumatic stress, severe anxiety, depression and some medical conditions may also share similar symptoms as bipolar disorder.

As with all mental illness, treatment for bipolar disorder requires several approaches to be considered optimal.

Medications can be a very important aspect of treatment. Keeping yourself healthy in other ways, such as avoiding substances, regular exercise, and managing other illnesses appropriately is very important.

Counselling, or talk therapy, is also an extremely important aspect of the treatment of bipolar disorder. Counselling can help you understand your own warning signs of illness, which helps your care providers find the optimal treatment for you. Involving your family in the management of bipolar disorder can also be beneficial for everyone, to help you and everyone around you understand your experience.