National Alliance on Mental Illness
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What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months. This mental illness causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood, energy and the ability to think clearly. Cycles of high (manic) and low (depressive) moods may follow an irregular pattern that differs from the typical ups and downs experienced by most people. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can have a negative impact on a person’s life. Damaged relationships or a decline in job or school performance are potential effects, but positive outcomes are possible.
Two main features characterize people who live with bipolar disorder: intensity and oscillation (ups and downs). People living with bipolar disorder often experience two intense emotional states. These two states are known as mania and depression. A manic state can be identified by feelings of extreme irritability and/or euphoria, along with several other symptoms during the same week such as agitation, surges of energy, reduced need for sleep, talkativeness, pleasure-seeking and increased risktaking behavior. On the other side, when an individual experiences symptoms of depression they feel extremely sad, hopeless and loss of energy. Not everyone’s symptoms are the same and the severity of mania and depression can vary.
More than 10 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Because of its irregular patterns, bipolar disorder is often hard to diagnose. Although the illness can occur at any point in life, more than one-half of all cases begin between ages 15-25. Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally.
What Does Recovery Look Like?
As people become familiar with their illness, they recognize their own unique patterns of behavior. If individuals recognize these signs and seek effective and timely care, they can often prevent relapses. But because bipolar disorder has no cure, treatment must be continuous.
Individuals who live with bipolar disorder also benefit tremendously from taking responsibility for their own recovery. Once the illness is adequately managed, one must monitor potential side effects.
The notion of recovery involves a variety of perspectives. Recovery is a holistic process that includes traditional elements of physical health and aspects that extend beyond medication. Recovery from serious mental illness also includes attaining, and maintaining, physical health as another cornerstone of wellness.
The recovery journey is unique for each individual. There are several definitions of recovery; some grounded in medical and clinical values, some grounded in context of community and successful living. One of the most important principles of recovery is this: recovery is a process, not an event. The uniqueness and individual nature of recovery must be honored. While serious mental illness impacts individuals in many challenging ways, the concept that all individuals can move towards wellness is paramount.
Bipolar disorder presents a special challenge because its manic, or hypomania, stages can be seductive. People with bipolar disorder may be afraid to seek treatment because they are afraid that they will feel flat, less capable or less creative. These fears must be weighed against the benefits of getting and staying well. A person may feel good while manic but may make choices that could seriously damage relationships, finances, health, home life or job prospects.
It is very common for people living with bipolar disorder to want to discontinue their medication because of side effects or because it has been a long time since the last episode of illness. However, it should be remembered that the progress one has attained is reliant upon continuing to take medication.