Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

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What is bipolar?

People with bipolar experience periods of depressed mood and periods of elevated ('high') or irritable mood, and often a mixture of these. The depressed and 'high' or irritable moods are more severe than normal sadness, happiness or irritability and generally last weeks or months. Many people find that the high and low moods are closely related in time.

Often people experience general mood instability inbetween the more obvious periods of depression and high moods. The depression phase is often experienced first and commonly in the late teens and early adult life.

The symptoms of depression or low mood vary from person to person. They can include sadness, finding it difficult to enjoy things, tiredness, losing appetite or appetite being too great, being unable to sleep or sleeping too much, gloomy thoughts which can include thoughts of death and some people think of suicide. Self-esteem can go down and people can start blaming themselves inappropriately. Some people may hear voices or see visions when there is nothing there to explain them and their ideas may get out of proportion.

The symptoms of high mood also vary from person to person.

For many people the high moods do not interfere with their life, and they may even find that they perform better than usual during these periods. Mood may be excessively happy and/or excessively irritable. People can find themselves becoming uncharacteristically confrontational which can get them into trouble. Sleep is often reduced without the person feeling tired. Other symptoms include being easily distracted when carrying out tasks, feeling too confident and making ambitious plans for the future, experiencing thoughts racing too quickly, talking too much - others comment that they can't interrupt or understand, being over-active, finding it difficult to relax, and behaving recklessly (for example, spending too much money). Some people may hear voices or see visions when there is nothing there to explain them, and their ideas may get out of proportion. Some people enjoy this phase and may not seek immediate help, even though others may be very worried about them because of their uncharacteristic behaviour. This behaviour can be risky and affect a person's ability to carry out usual activities and commitments. Some people feel very out of control and seek help.

If you start to feel like your life isn't worth living, if you have thoughts of suicide or if your mood is uncharacteristically high or you feel so energetic it seems out of control, get help straight away. If you know someone who has the symptoms described particularly if you think they may be at risk from either being low or high, encourage them to seek help.

These are people you can talk to who want to help.

  • Make an urgent appointment to see your GP
  • Contact NHS 111
  • Call The Samaritans 24-hour support service on 08457 90 90 90 for confidential, non-judgmental emotional support. If you prefer to write down how you are feeling, or if you are worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org
  • Go to, or call, your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department and tell the staff how you are feeling

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Find out more about bipolar

To find out more about bipolar, its symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, you can visit these websites for information and support.

Neither this Partnership nor its members, supporters or funders have any editorial control over the websites linked to on these pages, and cannot be held responsible for the information, products or services contained therein.

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