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  • Writer's pictureChristy Callahan, PMHNP-BC, NP

Demystifying Bipolar Disorder


Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a complex mental health condition characterized by extreme mood swings that include episodes of mania (extremely elevated mood and energy) and depression (low mood and energy). These mood swings can have a significant impact on a person's daily life, relationships, and overall well-being. Demystifying bipolar disorder involves understanding its key aspects, causes, and symptoms.


There are three main types of bipolar disorder:


  • Bipolar I Disorder: Defined by manic episodes that last at least seven days and may be severe enough to require hospitalization. Depressive episodes often occur as well.

  • Bipolar II Disorder: Involves milder episodes of hypomania (elevated mood) that may last for 3-4 days alternating with depressive episodes.

  • Cyclothymic Disorder: A milder form of bipolar disorder characterized by numerous periods of hypomanic and depressive symptoms that don't meet the criteria for full-blown episodes.

It's important to recognize that bipolar mania/hypomania can vary widely from person to person and can also manifest differently in different episodes. However, there are key aspects to note:


1. Duration and Persistence: Bipolar disorder is characterized by distinct episodes of mania (lasting at least seven days) or hypomania (elevated mood and energy lasting at least 3-4 or more days) alternating with depressive episodes. These episodes are more intense and persistent than the typical ups and downs people experience.


2. Cluster of Symptoms: Bipolar episodes involve a cluster of symptoms that significantly impact day-to-day functioning. They include changes in energy levels, sleep patterns, thought processes, and behavior. The symptoms tend to occur together and are not isolated instances of "happy days."


3. Impaired Functioning: Bipolar episodes cause a noticeable change in behavior and functioning. This could involve making impulsive and risky decisions, decreased need for sleep, excessive talkativeness, racing thoughts, and more. These symptoms can lead to problems in school, relationships, and other areas of life.


4. Uncharacteristic Behavior: The behaviors associated with bipolar episodes are often uncharacteristic of the individual's baseline personality and functioning. They go beyond the typical mood fluctuations.


Causes of bipolar disorders include genetic factors as there is evidence suggesting that it can run in families, neurochemical imbalances of dopamine and serotonin, which play a role in mood regulation, and environmental triggers such as stressful life events, substance abuse, and other environmental factors can trigger or worsen episodes.


It's important to note that while hypomania may not cause the extreme impairment associated with full mania, it can still have significant effects on a person's life, relationships, and overall well-being. Individuals experiencing hypomanic episodes may not always recognize the need for treatment because they may enjoy the increased energy and positive mood. However, if left untreated, hypomania can escalate into full mania or contribute to the development of depressive episodes.


Most teenagers have "mood swings" can bipolar disorder be diagnosed in teens? The answer is yes; however, it's important to note that while some teenagers may exhibit certain symptoms that resemble aspects of bipolar disorder, not all mood changes are indicative of a mental health disorder. Teenagers often go through developmental changes that can affect their emotions and behaviors. Be that as it may, if a teenager's mood swings and behaviors are persistent, disruptive, and significantly impact their school, social, and family functioning, it's essential to consult a mental health professional for a comprehensive assessment and appropriate guidance.



Bipolar disorder can also affect children, but it may present differently than in teens/adults and can be challenging as some symptoms may overlap with other childhood conditions. They may have poor concentration, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, which can make it difficult to distinguish from ADHD. However, it may also include periods of intense, elevated mood, which can include extreme happiness, silliness, excitement, and irritability, alternating with periods of persistent sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. It's important to identify shifts between moods and changes in sleep patterns, which are characteristic of bipolar disorders.


Proper diagnosis and treatment of bipolar depression are essential for managing the

condition effectively. The treatment of bipolar disorder typically involves a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle adjustments. It's important to note that treatment plans are individualized based on the severity of the condition, the specific symptoms experienced, and the individual's preferences. A comprehensive approach is often the most effective way to manage bipolar disorder and improve overall well-being. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder, seeking help from a mental health professional is crucial for accurate assessment and appropriate intervention.


Christy Callahan, PMHNP-BC, CRNP is a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Shine Behavioral Health in Severna Park, MD.













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