Harvard Health Letter

Bipolar disorder

The manic highs and depressive lows of bipolar disorder can be devastating, but treatment may even them out.

Normally, how happy or sad we feel is connected to events in our lives — achievements and rejections, love found and loved ones lost. But in people with mood disorders, these emotions take on a life of their own often unrelated to circumstance. Mood has been described as our emotional temperature. With mood disorders, we lose the ability to regulate that temperature.

Bipolar disorder, once known as manic-depressive illness, is a mood disorder. People with the condition cycle through changes in mood that are — just as the name suggests — at opposite ends of a spectrum. The "up" part of the cycle is called mania. Untreated, mania can last months, even years. In its milder form, it can be pleasant. People feel wonderful — exuberant, energetic, optimistic. They're charming, outgoing, and talkative. They believe their thinking is sharper and more creative — and sometimes it is.

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