Explains what bipolar disorder is, as well as different diagnoses and treatments. Offers information on how you can support someone with bipolar and tips for self-management.
What causes bipolar disorder?
No one knows exactly what causes bipolar disorder. Research suggests that a combination of factors could increase your chance of developing it. This includes physical, environmental and social conditions.
This page covers:
Some experts believe that experiencing a lot of emotional distress as a child can cause bipolar disorder to develop. This could be because childhood trauma and distress can have a big effect on your ability to manage your emotions.
This can include experiences like:
- Sexual, physical or emotional abuse
- Traumatic events
- Losing someone very close to you, such as a parent or carer
You may be able to link the start of your symptoms to stressful experiences or situations in your life.
Some people also find that stress can trigger a mood episode. Or it may make symptoms feel more intense or difficult to manage.
Things that can cause stress include:
- A relationship breakdown
- Money worries and poverty
- Experiencing trauma
- Losing someone close to you
- Being abused, bullied or harassed, including experiencing racism
- Feeling lonely or isolated
- Lots of change or uncertainty
- Feeling under pressure while working, studying or looking for work
- Big events, such as weddings or holidays
For more information on the links between stress and mental health, see our pages on managing stress.
Doing too much, or going to extremes, in any aspect of my life, is a recipe for a mood episode.
Evidence shows that you can treat bipolar symptoms with certain psychiatric medications which act on the neurotransmitters. These are the 'messenger chemicals' in your brain.
This suggests that bipolar disorder may relate to functional problems of the neurotransmitters. While some research supports this, no one knows for sure how these neurotransmitters work. And we don't know whether problems with these are a cause of bipolar disorder, or a result of it.
If you experience bipolar disorder, you're more likely to have a family member who also experiences bipolar moods and symptoms. But they might not have a formal diagnosis. This suggests that bipolar disorder can be passed on genetically through families.
But this doesn't strictly mean that there is one 'bipolar gene'. Family links are likely to be much more complex.
For example, researchers think that social factors can also trigger experiences of bipolar disorder symptoms. And family members can be an influential part of your environment as you grow up.
Medication, drugs and alcohol may cause you to experience some bipolar moods and symptoms. For example:
- Medication. Some medications can cause hypomania or mania as a side effect. This can happen when you're taking them, or as a withdrawal symptom when you stop taking them. This includes medications for physical conditions and psychiatric medications – including some antidepressants. Depression can also be a side effect of a lot of different medications. It's important to discuss any concerns about medication side effects with your doctor.
- Alcohol or recreational drugs. Using these can cause you to experience symptoms similar to mania, hypomania or depression. It can often be difficult to distinguish the effects of alcohol and drugs from mental health symptoms.
Some studies suggest that using certain recreational drugs can increase your risk of developing bipolar disorder. But the evidence is very limited.
If you're worried about the effects of medication, alcohol or recreational drugs on your mental health, it's important to discuss it with your doctor.
For more information, see our pages on antidepressants and the mental health effects of alcohol and recreational drugs.
This information was published in February 2022. We will revise it in 2025.
References and bibliography available on request.
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