Bipolar disorder symptoms, causes and treatment

Everyone experiences mood swings from time to time.

But if extreme changes in mood are affecting your day-to-day life, it's important to get help.

In this guide, we explain the most common bipolar disorder symptoms, who to know if you have it, and where to get help.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a long-term mental health condition that affects around 1 in 50 Australians.

People living with bipolar disorder tend to experience extreme mood swings.

This includes extreme high moods called mania and extreme depressive or low moods. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression.

Bipolar disorder usually develops during the teenage years or early adulthood, but it may develop later in life too.

It's not known what causes bipolar disorder, although genetic and environmental factors may play a role.

Bipolar disorder symptoms can affect how a person feels, thinks and behaves.

For many people, mood episodes can have a large impact on day-to-day life.

Extreme highs and severe depression can cause challenges with relationships, self-care, work and social life.

If mood changes are affecting how you function in everyday life, it's important to see a professional health care provider.

Types of bipolar

There are several different types of bipolar disorder.

Bipolar type one disorder

Bipolar type one is the most severe form of the disorder.

Bipolar one disorder symptoms include:

  • Manic episodes that last a long time (weeks or months)
  • Depressive episodes

They may also experience psychotic symptoms such as seeing things that aren't really there or believing things that aren't logical.

Bipolar type two disorder

Bipolar type two is less severe than type one.

Bipolar two disorder symptoms typically include:

  • Major depressive episodes
  • Hypomanic episodes (similar to a manic episodes, but less severe)

Cyclothymic disorder

Cyclothymic disorder is a milder form of bipolar disorder.

People living with cyclothymic disorder experience unpredictable changes in mood that occur frequently.

This may include episodes of mania and depression.

However, episodes tend to be shorter and less extreme than for bipolar I and II disorder.

Bipolar disorder causes

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown.

However, it is believed to be impacted by the following factors:

  • Environmental factors
  • Genetic factors
  • Physical illnesses
  • Substance abuse

How to know if you have bipolar disorder

The only way to get a bipolar diagnosis is by speaking with a qualified mental health professional.

The first step is usually talking to your GP or family doctor.

They may ask you questions about your symptoms and mental health.

They may run some tests to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.

Your GP can't give you a bipolar disorder diagnosis, but they may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a formal diagnosis.

Your mental health professional can help you with creating a treatment plan and learning tools for coping. They can also put you in touch with services that might help.

Bipolar disorder symptoms

Severe bipolar disorder symptoms can be extremely challenging, affecting everyday life such as work, relationships, physical health and social life.

Mild bipolar disorder symptoms can have less of an impact on everyday life, but still pose unique challenges.

The most common symptoms of bipolar disorder, whether mild or severe, include:

Depressive symptoms

  • Feeling sad, low or hopeless
  • Low energy
  • No motivation
  • Loss of interest in things that used to bring you joy
  • Difficulty with concentration or memory
  • Feelings of self-hate or worthlessness
  • Lack of appetite or eating too much
  • Sleeping a lot or finding it hard to sleep
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviours

Mania symptoms

  • Feeling very happy or elated
  • Feeling very energetic
  • Talking quickly
  • Racing thoughts
  • Having lots of exciting new ideas
  • Not sleeping
  • Not eating
  • Feeling irritated or agitated easily
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Making rash or risky decisions
  • Making big decisions without thinking through the consequences
  • Doing things you wouldn't normally do, such as gambling, spending a lot of money or consuming a lot of drugs and alcohol.

Hypomania symptoms

Hypomania has similar symptoms to mania, but less severe. Hypomania bipolar disorder symptoms may include:

  • Elevated mood
  • Increased energy
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Racing thoughts
  • Impulsivity
  • Increased creativity
  • Increased talkativeness
  • Increased risk-taking and poor judgement

Hypomania can be a positive experience for some people, but it can also lead to difficulty in functioning, as with other bipolar disorders.

Psychotic symptoms

People with bipolar disorder may experience psychotic symptoms during manic and depressive episodes, such as:

  • Hallucinations – seeing, hearing or sensing things that are not real
  • Delusions – false, fixed or irrational beliefs that are not based in reality

These symptoms can be distressing and can interfere with daily activities.

People with bipolar disorder may also experience difficulties in concentration, memory, and thinking.

It is important for people with bipolar disorder to seek help from a doctor or mental health professional, as these symptoms can be managed with appropriate treatment.

Treatment may include psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.

Psychotic symptoms can be distressing and lead to a person taking actions that are out of character - it's important that these symptoms are taken just as seriously as other bipolar disorder symptoms.

If you or someone you know are experiencing any of these symptoms, raise your concerns with your healthcare provider, or encourage your peer to do so.

How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?

Bipolar disorder is diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional.

During the assessment, they may ask about your symptoms, how severe they are and how long they last for.

They may also ask about your family history of mental illness.

You're more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder if a family member is too.

It can sometimes take a long time for bipolar disorder to be diagnosed correctly.

That's because the diagnosis is done through talking and questions, not through tests.

What's more, bipolar symptoms may be experienced by people living with other mental health conditions, such as major depression or psychosis.

While it can be a frustrating process, we encourage you to persevere, as a correct diagnosis is critical to receiving the best treatment for your mental health.

How is bipolar treated?

There are many effective treatments that can help you cope with bipolar symptoms, manage triggers and stay on top of your health.

A mental health professional will work with you to find the combination of treatments that is right for you.

Treatments for bipolar disorder include:

  • Psychological treatments – talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy can help you understand the way your mind and body works, and develop ways to cope.
  • Medication – your doctor may prescribe medication such as mood stabilisers, antipsychotics or antidepressants.
  • Peer support – support groups and mentors can provide information, emotional support and social connection to help you live and thrive with bipolar disorder.
  • Lifestyle changes – lifestyle changes can include stress management techniques, regular exercise, healthy eating and avoiding drugs and alcohol. These can help you to stay well and reduce the risk of relapse.

Remember that while bipolar disorder can't be cured, there are treatments and strategies out there that help you manage your symptoms and get you back to living life the way you want.

It is also important to remember that everyone's experience with bipolar disorder is unique.

You may need to experiment to find what works best for you.

On this journey, be patient and kind to yourself, and don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

When should you get help?

If you have experienced an episode of mania, hypomania or depression, it's recommended you seek a professional assessment. Talking to your GP is a good place to start.

It's important to get help if mood swings are affecting your day-to-day life.

A mental health professional can help you access tools and treatments to cope better.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviours, get help immediately.

Support for living with bipolar disorder

There are many supports and services out there to help you manage your health and overcome any challenges you might be facing. These include:

To learn more about living with bipolar disorder, and how to manage your symptoms, explore our other resources: