Bipolar Disorder Signs & Symptoms

Bipolar disorder can be hard to spot. Learn about the warning signs & symptoms to watch for.

Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Learn about bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness that causes sufferers to experience extreme upheaval in their daily lives. While changes in mood are something that everyone experiences, people with bipolar disorder experience such drastic mood changes and such prominent emotional disturbances that it begins to impair their ability to function appropriately on a daily basis. The presence of symptoms of this condition can cause individuals to experience hindered functioning in their home, school, work, and social lives.

When one receives a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, that diagnosis will be classified into one of three types depending on the types and severity of symptoms that he or she is experiencing. These types include bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymia and are described briefly in the following:

Bipolar I is the most severe form of bipolar disorder, characterized by radical shifts in mood that cause significant impairment in an individual’s daily functioning and leads to monumental disturbances in all areas of their lives.

Bipolar II elicits symptoms that are milder than those characteristic of bipolar I, yet still cause disruption in the lives of those who are afflicted by it. Individuals with bipolar II will experience pervasive episodes of depression but will also have at least one hypomanic episode. Hypomania is a mild form of mania and is what most predominantly distinguishes bipolar II from bipolar I.

Cyclothymia is the mildest form of bipolar disorder and is characterized by mild episodes of depression and hypomania. People with cyclothymia will experience struggles, yet will not typically face the monumental disruption in functioning that people with bipolar I suffer from.


Bipolar disorder statistics

There are said to be approximately six million people over the age of 18 in the United States who suffer from a clinical diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which equates to approximately 2.6% of the population. With regards to children and adolescents, there is said to be a 0-3% lifetime prevalence of this mental health condition. However, as bipolar disorder was not historically diagnosed in youth under the age of 18, it has been said that more research needs to be conducted in order to provide more conclusive statistics.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for bipolar disorder

Research states that there are a combination of factors working together that contribute to the onset of bipolar disorder. Consider the following:

Genetic: A highly weighted factor in the development of bipolar disorder lies in a person’s hereditary background. Studies have shown that when an individual has a biological parent who suffers from bipolar disorder, he or she is 15%-25% more likely to experience symptoms of this illness him or herself than are those individuals who do not share the same genetic history. Other studies have shown that the children of parents who have bipolar disorder will, on average, begin experiencing symptoms of the condition ten years earlier than their parents did.

Environmental: When an individual has a genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder, there are some environmental factors that can elicit the onset of its symptoms. Furthermore, certain environmental factors can exacerbate symptoms that may already be present. For example, the chemical changes that occur in the brain as the result of drug and/or alcohol abuse can cause some individuals to experience the onset of symptoms of bipolar disorder at an earlier age than they would have should they have not engaged in the use of substances. Additionally, being the victim of abuse, neglect, or crime, or having endured major, stressful life changes can also elicit the onset of bipolar disorder symptoms when a genetic predisposition for the disorder is present.

Risk Factors:

  • Personal or family history of substance abuse
  • Family history of bipolar disorder, depression, or other mental health conditions
  • Presence of a preexisting mental illness
  • Being the victim of abuse and/or neglect (when one possesses a genetic predisposition for the illness)
  • Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or series of traumatic events(when one possesses a genetic predisposition for the illness)

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder

The signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder will vary not only from person to person, but will also vary drastically depending upon whether a person is experiencing a manic episode or a depressive episode. Examples of possible symptoms that may be indicative of the fact that someone is suffering from bipolar disorder can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Excessive restlessness
  • Frequent absences from work
  • School refusal
  • Talking to oneself
  • Acting on impulse
  • Engaging in highly risky behaviors
  • Sudden, unprovoked aggressive outbursts
  • Hypersexuality
  • Responding to external stimuli that others cannot see or hear
  • Jumping from topic to topic in conversation
  • Starting multiple tasks / projects but failing to finish any of them
  • Behaving in an instigative manner
  • Engaging in self-harming behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Needing excessive amounts of sleep or, conversely, not needing to sleep at all
  • Vocal and/or motor tics
  • Teeth grinding
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Heightened states of arousal
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Alternating between a lack of energy or heightened levels of energy
  • Fluctuations in bodily temperature

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Memory disturbances / poor working memory
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Racing thoughts
  • Paranoia
  • Night terrors
  • Flight of ideas
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Drastic oscillation of mood
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Periods of emotional detachment
  • False sense of grandiosity
  • Excessive anger / rage
  • Extreme agitation and irritability
  • Exaggerated feelings of elation
  • All-consuming feelings of depression
  • Heightened levels of anxiety


Effects of bipolar disorder

When individuals are plagued by the ongoing symptoms of bipolar disorder, and do not receive appropriate treatment or begin taking the appropriate medications, they become susceptible to experiencing a number of adverse consequences. Examples of various effects that can afflict a person who does not receive treatment for bipolar disorder can include:

  • Conflict within relationships
  • Failure to develop future healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Familial strife
  • Children and adolescents may display behavioral problems at school, resulting in suspension or expulsion
  • Children and adolescents may struggle academically
  • Adults may experience difficulty performing adequately in a work setting, resulting in job loss and chronic unemployment
  • Criminal involvement, resulting in interaction with law enforcement
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse and addiction
  • Onset of symptoms of other mental health conditions
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Bipolar disorder and co-occurring disorders

Individuals with bipolar disorder often receive dual diagnoses of other mental health conditions as well. In some cases, the symptoms of bipolar disorder with overlap or mirror those of other mental illnesses, but such symptoms are frequently given an independent diagnosis. Examples of mental health conditions that have been known to be diagnosed alongside bipolar include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Conduct disorder

Harbor Oaks’ treatment plans take into consideration each client's specific needs. With their guidance and support, they were able to help me get my bipolar symptoms under control and am now much more optimistic about the future!

– Former Patient
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