The challenges of living with bipolar disorder


The challenges of living with bipolar disorder

As we mark World Bipolar Day on March 30, we wanted to raise awareness of this troubling mental illness and explain more about what it is, what causes it and what help is available.

What is it?

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness marked by extreme shifts in mood. Unlike simple mood swings, each extreme episode of bipolar disorder can last for several weeks, or longer. Symptoms can include an extremely elevated mood called mania. They can also include episodes of depression. It used to be known as manic depression for obvious reasons.

It is fairly common, with approximately 1 in every 100 people diagnosed with it at some point in their life. Men and women from all backgrounds are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder. However, the main symptoms may differ between the two genders. Bipolar disorder can occur at any age, although it often develops between the ages of 15 and 19 but rarely after 40.

Highs and lows

When you become depressed, you may feel sad or hopeless and lose interest or pleasure in most activities. When your mood shifts to mania, you may feel euphoric, full of energy or unusually irritable. These mood swings can affect sleep, energy, activity, judgment, behaviour and the ability to think clearly.

People with bipolar disorder may have trouble managing everyday life, tasks at school, work or driving, and struggle to maintain relationships. It may leave you feeling you have little control.

The pattern of mood swings in bipolar disorder varies widely. Some people only have a couple of episodes in their lifetime and are stable in between, while others have several in a month.

What causes bipolar disorder?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, although a few things can trigger an episode including.

  • extreme stress
  • overwhelming problems
  • life-changing events

Scientists have also found a link to biological differences and genetics. For example, people with bipolar disorder appear to have physical changes in their brains. Whilst bipolar disorder is more common in people who have a first-degree relative, such as a sibling or parent, with the condition.


Bipolar disorder has no cure. However, treatments aim to reduce the severity and number of episodes, to allow you to have as normal a life as possible. Following a diagnosis from a doctor, you can expect to be treated using a combination of one or more of the following:

  1. Medicine to prevent episodes of mania and depression (mood stabilisers).
  2. Medicine to treat the main symptoms of depression and mania when they happen.
  3. Learning to recognise the triggers and signs of an episode of depression or mania.
  4. Psychological treatment, including talking therapies to help you manage your bipolar disorder in the long term.
  5. Lifestyle advice including regular exercise, doing activities you enjoy, improving your diet and getting more sleep.

Living with bipolar

Although it’s usually a long-term condition, effective treatments for bipolar disorder can limit its impact on your everyday life. And many people with bipolar disorder can receive most of their treatment without having to stay in a hospital.

The future

If you are struggling or know someone who is, the following charities, support groups and associations will be able to help.

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