Bipolar disorder is one of the most commonly misunderstood mental disorders in the world.
Only obsessive-compulsive disorder and psychopathy are more frequently mischaracterised. The way that all three of them are mischaracterized is even quite similar: People will exhibit some mild personality quirk, and then describe it with the misunderstood mental illness.
With OCD, it is neatness. With psychopathy, it is anger and violence (a particularly unfortunate mischaracterization of psychopaths). And with bipolar disorder it is moodiness. But painting bipolar disorder as ‘moody’ does a massive disservice to those who suffer from it.
What is bipolar disorder?
The shortest way to describe the cause of bipolar disorder is that there are chemical imbalances in the brain. The three hormones associated with bipolar disorder are noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. Noradrenaline is basically the neurotransmitter that deals with your body’s flight-or-fight response, while serotonin handles the sleep cycle and dopamine deals with happiness.
A person with bipolar disorder will have a brain that frequently either overproduces or underproduces these hormones. This leads to what are called ‘manic episodes’ and ‘depressive episodes’, determined by whether they have too much or too little of these.
The manic episode is when the brain produces too much noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. The person with bipolar disorder will feel incredible – they will sometimes get fixated on a goal, such as writing an amazing novel or inventing the longer lasting lightbulb.
The important thing to understand is that they feel like they can do anything. This is not actually a great state for a person to be in as people, in general, cannot do anything. Not only that, but the manic episode will usually lead to impulsive, risky behavior, as well as a lack of sleep.
Manic episodes can last from one to five days. As dangerous as these episodes can be due to the lack of inhibition or caution paired with the lofty ambitions and lack of respect for other people, the real danger comes after they crash into what is called a ‘depressive episode’.
Once the brain has produced enough noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, it will actually have trouble producing much more for a limited time. The result is a period of time where the person with bipolar disorder lacks these things. And these are pretty important things to lack.
Remember what the roles of each hormone are: Flight or fight, sleep cycles, and happiness. If you lack the hormones to regulate those things, what happens? Well, you get someone who is avoidant, has trouble both sleeping and waking, and is dangerously depressed.
Just like the manic episode made the person feel like they could do anything, the depressive episode mirrors that by making them feel like they can do nothing. They will have trouble getting out of bed, remembering things, and focusing in general.
Depressive episodes are a natural consequence of manic episodes. But let’s not get too poetical about it. Too many people read this as being the “fault” of the person with bipolar disorder. Like the depressive episode is punishment for the hubris they exhibited while manic.
What you have to remember though is that when a person with bipolar disorder is in the midst of a manic episode, they have very limited agency in how they feel. Even if a person in a manic episode does not act manic, they will get hit with a depressive episode afterwards.
That is because it is all going on inside them on a chemical level, outside their control.
How is bipolar disorder treated?
Now that we know about what causes bipolar disorder, let’s talk about how to treat it. Because despite how it feels to the person suffering from the disorder, it is treatable. There are three main treatments for the illness, but we will start with the most prescribed: Mood stabilizers.
These are medications that help with the rate at which hormones are produced in the brain. If you think back to our description of bipolar disorder’s cause, you might remember that it was an overproduction of certain hormones that triggered it.
These mood stabilisers will make a neurotypical person depressed by limiting their brain’s ability to get them the hormones they need. But in a bipolar person, they will make them far more stable. It is important to note that it is still possible for a mood stabilizer to be too powerful.
If the mood stabilizers are too strong, then they will even make a bipolar person feel like a zombie. If this happens to you or someone you love, then talk to your psychiatrist or pharmacist about it. It is not too hard to get switched to something of lower power.
People get worried when they see they have been prescribed antipsychotics. They worry that they are “crazy”, and that they have been branded as a person incapable of holding onto reality.
This is a cultural attitude, not a scientific one. The word “psychotic” has been used as a shorthand for people who exhibit unhealthy behavior. But someone with psychotic episodes simply has a brain that is creating circumstances that make it hard for them to read reality.
Instead of limiting the production of certain hormones, antipsychotics encourage the production of other hormones to balance out the system.
These are the least common of the three, as antidepressants have an indirect effect on the whole bipolar disorder ecosystem. They also have a risk of triggering a manic or depressive episode, though it is not common and hardly dangerous.
In short, they work for some people. But not for everyone.
Bipolar disorder can be incredibly debilitating due causing the person to vacillate between acting erratically and barely being able to get out of bed. But there are ways of dealing with it.
If you want to get yourself or a loved one screened and treated for bipolar disorder, then we can give you all the advice you need on how to get that done: https://epiphanywellness.com/
Adam Mulligan did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.
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