So what is bipolar disorder anyway?
The elusive bipolar definition. One things for sure, you don’t want to have it. I’d really rather not.
Bipolar disorder is called so many things. In the past it was called manic depression, manic-depressive disorder and manic depressive illness.
These terms go all the way back to French psychiatrists in the 1850’s. The term manic depression was used for all different types of mood disorders or psychological problems. I think that’s why the term manic depression has implied that a person is just nuts.
Recently it’s been called bipolar disorder, bipolar disease, or bipolar illness. What is bipolar disorder? The reason for the name change from manic depression to bipolar disorder sheds more light on the basic definition of bipolar disorder.
In 1957 a German psychiatrist split up the mood disorders. He called regular chronic depression without any mania (mania is the bipolar “high”) “unipolar” (“uni” meaning one, “pole” meaning end) depression, and a mood disorder with depression and mania he called “bipolar” (“bi” meaning two, “polar” meaning ended) disorder, or bipolar affective disorder. (Affective is a term describing a mood disorder.)
Why just Bi?
Why is there no unipolar mania, only unipolar depression? Well there just doesn’t seem to be anyone who gets major mania (the “high” of bipolar disorder) without getting some depression. It’s possible that they may have minor mania, or hypomania, with no depression…
But would you go to the doctor for that? “Doc… I seem to have a lot more energy… I feel less inhibited but I’m still basically in control, and I’m quicker, more productive and happier. There seem to be no side-effects, no hallucinations, no reckless spending or provocative behaviors I’ll later regret, it goes away, but there’s no depression afterwards… can you help?” The truth is, I know people like this. The clinical term for these people is “annoying,” or “successful salesperson.”
What is Bipolar Disorder? It’s an Illness
When asking “What is bipolar disorder?” I think a really important question is: Is bipolar disorder psychological, chemical, or physical? Does a bipolar person just need to see a shrink, does he have a screw loose? Is he just a wacko? As in “Whoah, he’s totally bipolar!”
The truth is, having bipolar disorder is a little like having a screw loose in your brain. Bipolar disorder is caused by an imbalance in brain chemicals. It is not a personality issue, it is a disease When a bipolar person is in the middle of their swings- the person with bipolar disorder will seem completely normal. (Unless they are just naturally a weirdo.)
To over simplify (I don’t understand it myself anyhow): there are chemicals called serotonin that are kind of like uppers for your brain, and there’s dopamine, like downers. When these aren’t kept in balance the bipolar person’s behavior can change severely. A person can end up having a bipolar episode, with mood swings well out of the normal range.
The Good News
The good news is that it’s a disease, and that there is treatment. Psychological factors are involved, and I’ll talk more about that in the Causes of Bipolar page. But a bipolar person needs to pay extra attention to his health… getting regular sleep, reducing stress, eating regularly, getting some good therapy, and of course, taking bipolar medications. With some effort there is a very good chance at living with bipolar disorder.
So what is Bipolar Disorder?
So what is bipolar disorder? It is a difficult disease of the brain that effects a person’s mood, so that it can swing like a pendulum. But it does not reflect on the essence of who a person is. A person with bipolar disorder can be completely normal, and even exceptional (see the Famous People with Bipolar Disorder page) as long as they get bipolar disorder treatment. He is not just nuts-o. (Who you callin’ nuts-o!)