What is Bipolar Disorder?


This page is for anyone who wants to know more about bipolar disorder (sometimes called bipolar affective disorder or manic depression). It is especially helpful for anyone who has bipolar disorder, their friends and relatives.

This page describes:

  • the disorder and it’s classifications
  • some of the problems it can create
  • specific diagnosis criteria
  • the causes of bipolar

What is bipolar disorder?

Degrees of Bipolar

Bipolar disorder used to be called ‘manic depression’. As the older name suggests, someone with bipolar disorder will have severe mood swings. These usually last several weeks or months and are far beyond what most of us consider ‘normal’.

This mood contains feelings of intense depression, suicide and despair.
This mood contains feelings of extreme happiness, euphoria and despair.
This mood contains both a depressed feeling with the restlessness and over activity of a manic episode

How common is bipolar disorder?

About 1 in every 100 adults has bipolar disorder at some point in their life. It usually starts during or after the teenage years. It is unusual for it to start after the age of 40. Men and women are affected equally.

What types are there?

Bipolar I

There has been at least one high, or manic episode, which has lasted for longer than one week.

Some people with Bipolar I will have only manic episodes, although most will also have periods of depression.

Untreated, manic episodes generally last 3 to 6 months. Depressive episodes last rather longer – 6 to 12 months without treatment.

Bipolar II

There has been more than one episode of severe depression, but only mild manic episodes – these are called ‘hypomania’.

Rapid Cycling

More than four mood swings happen in a 12 month period. This affects around 1 in 10 people with bipolar disorder, and can happen with both types I and II.


The mood swings are not as severe as those in full bipolar disorder, but can be longer. This can develop into full bipolar disorder.

What causes bipolar disorder?

We don’t understand this well, but research suggests that:

  • Bipolar disorder runs in families – it seems to have more to do with genes than with upbringing.
  • There may be a physical problem with the brain systems which control our moods – this is why bipolar disorder can often be controlled with medication.
  • Episodes can sometimes be brought on by stressful experiences or physical illness.
  • Big life events can have a big effect on the episode frequency or magnitude.

What does it feel like?

This depends on which way your mood has swung.


The feeling of depression is something we all experience from time to time. It can even help us to recognise and deal with problems in our lives, but, in clinical depression or bipolar disorder, the feeling of depression is worse. It goes on for longer and makes it difficult or impossible to deal with the normal things of life. If you become depressed, you will notice some of these changes:

  • feelings of unhappiness that don’t go away
  • feeling that you want to burst into tears for no reason
  • losing interest in things
  • being unable to enjoy things
  • feeling restless and agitated
  • losing self-confidence
  • feeling useless, inadequate and hopeless
  • feeling more irritable than usual
  • thinking of suicide
  • can’t think positively or hopefully
  • finding it hard to make even simple decisions
  • difficulty in concentrating
  • losing appetite and weight
  • difficulty in getting to sleep
  • waking earlier than usual
  • feeling utterly tired
  • constipation
  • going off sex
  • difficulty in starting or completing things – even everyday chores
  • crying a lot – or feeling like you want to cry, but not being able to
  • avoiding contact with other people.


Mania is an extreme sense of well-being, energy and optimism. It can be so intense that it affects your thinking and judgement. You may believe strange things about yourself, make bad decisions, and behave in embarrassing, harmful and – occasionally – dangerous ways.

Like depression, it can make it difficult or impossible to deal with life in an effective way. A period of mania can affect both relationships and work.

When it isn’t so extreme, it is called ‘hypomania’. If you become manic, you may notice that you are:

  • very happy and excited
  • irritated with other people who don’t share your optimistic outlook
  • feeling more important than usual
  • full of new and exciting ideas
  • moving quickly from one idea to another
  • hearing voices that other people can’t hear
  • full of energy
  • unable or unwilling to sleep
  • more interested in sex
  • making plans that are grandiose and unrealistic
  • very active, moving around very quickly
  • behaving unusually
  • talking very quickly – other people may find it hard to understand what you are talking about
  • making odd decisions on the spur of the moment, sometimes with disastrous consequences
  • recklessly spending your money
  • over-familiar or recklessly critical with other people
  • less inhibited in general

If you are in the middle of a manic episode for the first time, you may not realise that there is anything wrong – although your friends, family or colleagues will. You may even feel offended if someone tries to point this out to you. You increasingly lose touch with day-to-day issues – and with other people’s feelings.

Psychotic symptoms

If an episode of mania or depression becomes very severe, you may develop psychotic symptoms.

  • In a manic episode – these will tend to be grandiose beliefs about yourself – that you are on an important mission or that you have special powers and abilities.
  • In a depressive episode – that you are uniquely guilty, that you are worse than anybody else, or even that you don’t exist.

As well as these unusual beliefs, you might experience hallucinations – when you hear, smell, feel or see something, but there isn’t anything (or anybody) there to account for it.

Diagnostic Criteria

Criteria for a manic episode

  • Abnormally elevated mood, energy and irritability lasting at least one week
  • Three or more of the following symptoms during that week: decreased need for sleep, unusually talkative, racing thoughts, unable to concentrate or easily distracted, partaking in activities with no regard to consequences (e.g. shopping sprees, promiscuity). The mood disturbance is severe enough to impair functioning and at time require hospitalization. Psychotic features may also be present.

Criteria for a depressive episode

  • Decrease in mood for a period of at least two weeks
  • Five or more of the following symptoms present: depressed mood every day, lack of interest in all pleasurable activities, loss or appetite and significant weight loss, insomnia, fatigue, lack of energy, feeling worthless or guilty, unable to concentrate, indecisive, recurrent thoughts of suicide or death.

Criteria for a hypomanic episode

  • A period of elevated or irritable mood lasting at least four days
  • Three or more of the following symptoms: Inflated sense of self-esteem, decreased need for sleep (at least 3 hours), more talkative than usual, racing thoughts, easily distractible, partaking in activities with no regard to consequences (e.g. shopping sprees, promiscuity). What separates it from a manic episode is that hypomanic episodes are usually not severe enough as to impair functioning nor require hospitalization.

Criteria for a mixed episode

  • In order to classify as a mixed episode, the criteria for both manic episodes and depressive episodes must be present every day over a period of at least one week.

Between episodes

It used to be thought that if you had bipolar disorder, you would return to normal in between mood swings. We now know that this is not so for many people with bipolar disorder. You may continue to experience mild depressive symptoms and problems in thinking even when you seem to be better.

Bipolar disorder may result in you having to stop driving for a while. Visit the DVLA website for further information.