What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive illness or manic depression) is a mental illness that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, activity levels, and concentration. These shifts can make it difficult to carry out day-to-day tasks.
There are three types of bipolar disorder. All three types involve clear changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. These moods range from periods of extremely “up,” elated, irritable, or energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very “down,” sad, indifferent, or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). Less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.
- Bipolar I disorder is defined by manic episodes that last for at least 7 days (nearly every day for most of the day) or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate medical care. Usually, depressive episodes occur as well, typically lasting at least 2 weeks. Episodes of depression with mixed features (having depressive symptoms and manic symptoms at the same time) are also possible. Experiencing four or more episodes of mania or depression within 1 year is called “rapid cycling.”
- Bipolar II disorder is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes. The hypomanic episodes are less severe than the manic episodes in bipolar I disorder.
- Cyclothymic disorder (also called cyclothymia) is defined by recurring hypomanic and depressive symptoms that are not intense enough or do not last long enough to qualify as hypomanic or depressive episodes.
Sometimes a person might experience symptoms of bipolar disorder that do not match the three categories listed above, and this is referred to as “other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders.”
Bipolar disorder is often diagnosed during late adolescence (teen years) or early adulthood. Sometimes, bipolar symptoms can appear in children. Although the symptoms may vary over time, bipolar disorder usually requires lifelong treatment. Following a prescribed treatment plan can help people manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
What are the signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder?
People with bipolar disorder experience periods of unusually intense emotion and changes in sleep patterns and activity levels, and engage in behaviors that are out of character for them—often without recognizing their likely harmful or undesirable effects. These distinct periods are called mood episodes. Mood episodes are very different from the person’s usual moods and behaviors. During an episode, the symptoms last every day for most of the day. Episodes may also last for longer periods, such as several days or weeks.
Symptoms of a Manic Episode
Symptoms of a Depressive Episode
Feeling very up, high, elated, or extremely irritable or touchy
Feeling very down or sad, or anxious
Feeling jumpy or wired, more active than usual
Feeling slowed down or restless
Having a decreased need for sleep
Having trouble falling asleep, waking up too early, or sleeping too much
Talking fast about a lot of different things (“flight of ideas”)
Talking very slowly, feeling unable to find anything to say, or forgetting a lot
Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
Feeling able to do many things at once without getting tired
Feeling unable to do even simple things
Having excessive appetite for food, drinking, sex, or other pleasurable activities
Having a lack of interest in almost all activities
Feeling unusually important, talented, or powerful
Feeling hopeless or worthless, or thinking about death or suicide
Sometimes people have both manic and depressive symptoms in the same episode, and this is called an episode with mixed features. During an episode with mixed features, people may feel very sad, empty, or hopeless while at the same time feeling extremely energized.
A person may have bipolar disorder even if their symptoms are less extreme. For example, some people with bipolar II disorder experience hypomania, a less severe form of mania. During a hypomanic episode, a person may feel very good, be able to get things done, and keep up with day-to-day life. The person may not feel that anything is wrong, but family and friends may recognize changes in mood or activity levels as possible symptoms of bipolar disorder. Without proper treatment, people with hypomania can develop severe mania or depression.
Receiving the right diagnosis and treatment can help people with bipolar disorder lead healthy and active lives. Talking with a health care provider is the first step. The health care provider can complete a physical exam and other necessary medical tests to rule out other possible causes. The health care provider may then conduct a mental health evaluation or provide a referral to a trained mental health care provider, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker who has experience in diagnosing and treating bipolar disorder.
Mental health care providers usually diagnose bipolar disorder based on a person’s symptoms, lifetime history, experiences, and, in some cases, family history. Accurate diagnosis in youth is particularly important.
Find tips to help prepare for and get the most out of your visit with your health care provider.
Bipolar disorder and other conditions
Many people with bipolar disorder also have other mental disorders or conditions such as anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), misuse of drugs or alcohol, or eating disorders. Sometimes people who have severe manic or depressive episodes also have symptoms of psychosis, which may include hallucinations or delusions. The psychotic symptoms tend to match the person’s extreme mood. For example, someone having psychotic symptoms during a depressive episode may falsely believe they are financially ruined, while someone having psychotic symptoms during a manic episode may falsely believe they are famous or have special powers.
Looking at a person’s symptoms over the course of the illness and examining their family history can help a health care provider determine whether the person has bipolar disorder along with another disorder.
What are the risk factors for bipolar disorder?
Researchers are studying possible causes of bipolar disorder. Most agree that there are many factors that are likely to contribute to a person’s chance of having the disorder.
Brain structure and functioning: Some studies show that the brains of people with bipolar disorder differ in certain ways from the brains of people who do not have bipolar disorder or any other mental disorder. Learning more about these brain differences may help scientists understand bipolar disorder and determine which treatments will work best. At this time, health care providers base the diagnosis and treatment plan on a person’s symptoms and history, rather than brain imaging or other diagnostic tests.
Genetics: Some research suggests that people with certain genes are more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Research also shows that people who have a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder have an increased chance of having the disorder themselves. Many genes are involved, and no one gene causes the disorder. Learning more about how genes play a role in bipolar disorder may help researchers develop new treatments.
How is bipolar disorder treated?
Treatment can help many people, including those with the most severe forms of bipolar disorder. An effective treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy, also called talk therapy.
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. Episodes of mania and depression typically come back over time. Between episodes, many people with bipolar disorder are free of mood changes, but some people may have lingering symptoms. Long-term, continuous treatment can help people manage these symptoms.
Certain medications can help manage symptoms of bipolar disorder. Some people may need to try different medications and work with their health care provider to find the medications that work best.
The most common types of medications that health care providers prescribe include mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotics. Mood stabilizers such as lithium or valproate can help prevent mood episodes or reduce their severity. Lithium also can decrease the risk of suicide. Health care providers may include medications that target sleep or anxiety as part of the treatment plan.
Although bipolar depression is often treated with antidepressant medication, a mood stabilizer must be taken as well—taking an antidepressant without a mood stabilizer can trigger a manic episode or rapid cycling in a person with bipolar disorder.
Because people with bipolar disorder are more likely to seek help when they are depressed than when they are experiencing mania or hypomania, it is important for health care providers to take a careful medical history to ensure that bipolar disorder is not mistaken for depression.
People taking medication should:
- Talk with their health care provider to understand the risks and benefits of the medication.
- Tell their health care provider about any prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or supplements they are already taking.
- Report any concerns about side effects to a health care provider right away. The health care provider may need to change the dose or try a different medication.
- Remember that medication for bipolar disorder must be taken consistently, as prescribed, even when one is feeling well.
It is important to talk to a health care provider before stopping a prescribed medication. Stopping a medication suddenly may lead symptoms to worsen or come back. You can find basic information about medications on NIMH's medications webpage. Read the latest medication warnings, patient medication guides, and information on newly approved medications on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, can be an effective part of treatment for people with bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy is a term for treatment techniques that aim to help people identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This type of therapy can provide support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an important treatment for depression, and CBT adapted for the treatment of insomnia can be especially helpful as part of treatment for bipolar depression.
Treatment may also include newer therapies designed specifically for the treatment of bipolar disorder, including interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) and family-focused therapy.
Learn more about the various types of psychotherapies.
Other treatment options
Some people may find other treatments helpful in managing their bipolar symptoms:
- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a brain stimulation procedure that can help relieve severe symptoms of bipolar disorder. Health care providers may consider ECT when a person’s illness has not improved after other treatments, or in cases that require rapid response, such as with people who have a high suicide risk or catatonia (a state of unresponsiveness).
- Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is a type of brain stimulation that uses magnetic waves to relieve depression over a series of treatment sessions. Although not as powerful as ECT, rTMS does not require general anesthesia and has a low risk of negative effects on memory and thinking.
- Light therapy is the best evidence-based treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and many people with bipolar disorder experience seasonal worsening of depression or SAD in the winter. Light therapy may also be used to treat lesser forms of seasonal worsening of bipolar depression.
Unlike specific psychotherapy and medication treatments that are scientifically proven to improve bipolar disorder symptoms, complementary health approaches for bipolar disorder, such as natural products, are not based on current knowledge or evidence. Learn more on the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website .
- A family health care provider is a good resource and can be the first stop in searching for help. Find tips to help prepare for and get the most out of your visit.
- To find mental health treatment services in your area, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), visit the SAMHSA online treatment locator , or text your ZIP code to 435748.
- Learn more about finding help on the NIMH website.
Coping with bipolar disorder
Living with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but there are ways to help make it easier.
- Work with a health care provider to develop a treatment plan and stick with it. Treatment is the best way to start feeling better.
- Follow the treatment plan as directed. Work with a health care provider to adjust the plan, as needed.
- Structure your activities. Try to have a routine for eating, sleeping, and exercising.
- Try regular, vigorous exercise like jogging, swimming, or bicycling, which can help with depression and anxiety, promote better sleep, and support your heart and brain health.
- Track your moods, activities, and overall health and well-being to help recognize your mood swings.
- Ask trusted friends and family members for help in keeping up with your treatment plan.
- Be patient. Improvement takes time. Staying connected with sources of social support can help.
Long-term, ongoing treatment can help control symptoms and enable you to live a healthy life.
How can I find a clinical trial for bipolar disorder?
Clinical trials are research studies that look at new ways to prevent, detect, or treat diseases and conditions. The goal of clinical trials is to determine if a new test or treatment works and is safe. Although individuals may benefit from being part of a clinical trial, participants should be aware that the primary purpose of a clinical trial is to gain new scientific knowledge so that others may be better helped in the future.
Researchers at NIMH and around the country conduct many studies with patients and healthy volunteers. We have new and better treatment options today because of what clinical trials uncovered years ago. Be part of tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs. Talk to your health care provider about clinical trials, their benefits and risks, and whether one is right for you.
To learn more or find a study, visit:
- NIMH’s Clinical Trials webpage: Information about participating in clinical trials
- Clinicaltrials.gov: Current Studies on Bipolar Disorder : List of clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) being conducted across the country
- Join a Study: Bipolar Disorder – Adults: List of studies being conducted on the NIH Campus in Bethesda, MD
Where can I learn more about bipolar disorder?
Free Brochures and Shareable Resources
- Bipolar Disorder: A brochure on bipolar disorder that offers basic information on signs and symptoms, treatment, and finding help. Also available en español.
- Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens: A brochure on bipolar disorder in children and teens that offers basic information on signs and symptoms, treatment, and finding help. Also available en español.
- Bipolar Disorder in Teens and Young Adults: Know the Signs: An infographic presenting common signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder in teens and young adults. Also available en español.
- Shareable Resources on Bipolar Disorder: Digital resources, including graphics and messages, to help support bipolar disorder awareness and education.
- NIMH Experts Discuss Bipolar Disorder in Adults: Learn the signs and symptoms, risk factors, treatments of bipolar disorder, and the latest NIMH-supported research in this area.
- Mental Health Minute: Bipolar Disorder in Adults: A minute-long video to learn about bipolar disorder in adults.
- NIMH Expert Discusses Bipolar Disorder in Adolescents and Young Adults: A video with an expert who explains the signs, symptoms, and treatments of bipolar disorder.
Research and Statistics
- Journal Articles : This webpage provides information on references and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine).
- Bipolar Disorder Statistics: An NIMH webpage that provides information on the prevalence of bipolar disorder among adults and adolescents.
Last Reviewed: February 2024
Unless otherwise specified, the information on our website and in our publications is in the public domain and may be reused or copied without permission. However, you may not reuse or copy images. Please cite the National Institute of Mental Health as the source. Read our copyright policy to learn more about our guidelines for reusing NIMH content.