What is Bipolar Disorder (For Students)

What is bipolar
Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes extreme dysregulation in a person’s mood that affects their ability to function day to day. While the cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, the prevalence of bipolar disorder is higher in families with first-degree relatives diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The three key features of bipolar disorder include: mania, hypomania, and depression.  

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What is Bipolar Disorder? 

Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes extreme dysregulation in a person’s mood that affects their ability to function day to day; there are several different types of bipolar disorder. While the cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, the prevalence of bipolar disorder is higher in families with first-degree relatives diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The three key features of bipolar disorder include: mania, hypomania, and depression.  


Mania presents differently in everyone. However, the key indicators to look for are always “extremes” occurring over a prolonged period of time. For example, a person with mania may seem unusually and persistently elated, hostile, hyperactive, and/or impulsive. These “out of control” symptoms typically last for weeks at a time. Someone experiencing manic symptoms might stay awake for days without sleeping. An individual may become impulsive and spend too much money, gamble, engage in risky sexual behavior, or indulge in excessive drinking or drug usage.   


Hypomania is less extreme than mania, but presenting symptoms are still considered unusual or abnormal. Hypomania typically does not disrupt a person’s ability to complete daily tasks, such as going to class. To be diagnosed with hypomania, an individual might notice a change in mood that is abnormal for them, lasting at least 4 days.  


The opposite “pole” of mania or hypomania is depression. An individual experiencing bipolar depression might feel extremely sad all day to the point that they are unable to stay awake, get dressed, or eat. During a depressive episode, a person may not be able to concentrate due to feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and loss of energy. Individuals with bipolar depression may have a preoccupation with death or thoughts of death and suicide. 

Types of Bipolar Disorder  

Bipolar I

In bipolar I you experience manic episodes characterized by highly energized and elevated moods, irritability, feelings of elation or being grandiose, and in some cases psychotic symptoms like paranoia that last at least a week. Sometimes, these episodes can be so extreme that you need to be hospitalized psychiatrically. These episodes are paired with episodes of depression that last at least two weeks or require hospitalization, and sometimes you may have a mix of manic and depressed symptoms. 

Bipolar II

In bipolar II, you will experience depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes. While hypomanic symptoms are similar to manic symptoms, they are less severe and less likely to interfere with day-to-day functioning.  

Cyclothymic Disorder

In cyclothymic disorder, you go through periods of hypomania; however, these episodes aren’t severe enough to meet the diagnostic criteria of the other two bipolar disorders. For a diagnosis to occur, depression must be present for at least two years in adults and 1 year in kids and adolescents.  

Bipolar Depression

Bipolar depression occurs when you are in an episode of one of the three types mentioned above. Most people are diagnosed in their late teens or early 20’s, and while there is no single direct reason for this disorder to develop there are a number of risk factors: family history of bipolar disorder, being a victim of child abuse, abusing drugs or alcohol, or being repeatedly exposed to high-stress situations are all themes in people with this diagnosis. 

Why Do I Feel This Way? 

Experiencing mood extremes can be scary. You may feel like you can’t control your impulses and do not know what to do about the flooding emotions or racing thoughts that you’re experiencing. During a manic episode, it is not uncommon for someone to stay awake for days, causing symptoms to worsen. 

On the opposite side of mania, depressive symptoms present as extreme sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, and guilt. You may feel like you can’t get out of bed, get dressed, or even eat.  Bipolar depression may cause you to feel alone, isolated, and irritable. You may feel like you want to die. These thoughts are scary. If you are experiencing these thoughts or symptoms, a counselor can help you through this. You are not alone! 


Mood shifts are common and non-problematic for many people. When it comes to mood shifts in bipolar disorder, they tend to be very intense and very drastic. The time frame of mood shifts can vary but commonly last days, weeks, or even months. Both mania and depression present differently, but both can lead to negative physical and emotional consequences.  

Physical reactions to depression: 

  • Changes in eating 
  • Changes in sleeping 
  • Upset stomach 
  • Headache 
  • Crying 
  • Low or no energy 
  • Unable to relax or pay attention 
  • Asking more questions about death or the deceased 
  • Withdrawing from activities that we typically enjoy 

Physical reactions to mania: 

  • Changes in eating 
  • Changes in sleeping 
  • Impulsivity 
  • Rapid speech 
  • Racing thoughts 
  • Above-average energy levels 
  • Irritability 
  • Restlessness 
  • Increased sex-drive 

Emotional reactions to mania or depression: 

  • Worrying 
  • Sadness 
  • Anger 
  • Guilt or regrets 
  • Shame 
  • Despair 
  • Fear 
  • Confusion 
  • Suicidal thoughts 

Wellbeing Strategies 

Monitor Your Mood: Keep track of your mood daily, including important factors such as your sleep, nutrition, and exercise. This will help paint a clearer picture of how you’re feeling and any important changes. 

Avoid Alcohol or Drugs: Using substances can alter your physical state and increase the intensity of your moods. Do your best to avoid using substances and worsening your bipolar symptoms.  

Limit Stress: Stress is a factor that can increase irritability and your body and brain’s ability to tolerate changes you experience. If possible, take on less commitments and limit those stressors in your life. 

Seek Professional Help: If you feel suicidal, in danger, or are engaging in risky behavior, please seek out help from a professional immediately. Please call 911 or go to your nearest medical facility. You can also seek professional help for a diagnosis, medication interventions, and other mental health treatment options involving therapeutic approaches. 

Scholarly Sources 

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Bipolar and related disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).  


National Institute of Mental Health. (2020, January). Bipolar disorder.  


Verywell Mind. (2021, January 8). Bipolar disorder: Overview. https://www.verywellmind.com/bipolar-disorder-4157274  

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