You know the term. It’s made the news (especially after some celebrities went public) and friends may even claim to have it. But what is bipolar disorder exactly, and how is it different from general mood swings?


“Bipolar disorder is an accentuation of mood states beyond what we normally experience,” explains Dr. John Sharp, a psychiatrist and neuropsychiatrist based in Boston and Los Angeles.


This isn’t a day-to-day state, but a week-to-week, month-to-month situation that can suddenly spin out of control.”


Yet bipolar disorder remains a big question mark for researchers who have so far failed to fully understand the illness. It’s generally hereditary and runs in the family — meaning genetics, not upbringing (don’t go blaming your parents quiet yet), are thought to be behind the condition caused by a problem with the section of the brain that runs our moods. Stress, physical illness and sleep deprivation are the most common triggers.

“What happens to someone suffering from bipolar disorder will depend on which way the mood has swung. Everything is intensified from the highs to the lows,” says Sharp.

For example, mania begins where exuberance leaves off and in extreme cases can be a psychiatric emergency. One’s mood is exceptionally high, causing happiness and euphoria, amplifying creativity, energy and self-esteem. Speech is rapid and the flight of ideas endless.

This early phase is intoxicating and addictive as the person thrives. But control over their behaviour is soon lost.