Bipolar disorder is a mental illness marked by alternating periods of mania and depression. The disorder causes abnormal shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the inability to function in normal, day-to-day life.
There are several types of bipolar disorder, including bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymia. The difference between bipolar I and bipolar II is how a person experiences manic episodes. Bipolar I is defined by manic episodes that last at least 7 days, or at manic symptoms that are so severe that the person requires immediate hospitalization.
Mania can be defined as an extremely elevated mood state characterized by inappropriate elation, increased irritability, severe insomnia, grandiose notions, increased speed/volume of speech, disconnected and racing thoughts, increased sexual desire, markedly increased energy and activity level, poor judgment, and inappropriate social behavior.
Most people who don’t know much about mental health understand mania as “the highest of highs,” as if it’s some inconceivably amazing level of happiness. This understanding of an incredibly dangerous and damaging symptom of a serious mental illness is unfair to the people who experience it, because it enables the misappropriation of the term to mean something desirable.
For many people who experience manic symptoms, there is often denial – a disbelief that the amazing surge of euphoria and energy marks a disorder that needs treatment. “Mania is a fascinating thing … it’s the brain creating its own hormonal high,” says Carrie Bearden, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA. “Most people first become manic in their early 20s, at a time in life when they’re not thinking about death, when they feel immortal.”
The problem with mania is that the “high” does not stop at a controllable or comfortable level. On a blog called “My Manic World,” a person who struggles with bipolar I equated manic feelings with the sensations associated with taking cocaine. A person’s thoughts will move faster and faster, they will sleep less and less until they are not sleeping at all, their moods will rapidly become more irritable and their judgment more impaired.
I once met a woman who, during a manic episode, truly believed she could fly, so she jumped off the roof of her house. Last year, UNCG hosted an author who discussed her experience with bipolar disorder; she described that during one of her manic episodes, she thought she was the second coming of the messiah. In an online support group for people with bipolar disorder, a man shared his story about his first manic episode:
“I had an affair, which lasted four months, next also during the affair I spent all of my wife [sic.] and my money; I bought nine cars; and about five, $5,000.00 suits – I traveled constantly; at one point I flew to Maui, HI…I was a financial advisor, and owned my own financial planning firm – I misallocated clients’ funds, which caused highly negative consequences, as you could probably imagine, not the least of which are criminal charges being brought against me, as well as civil suits. We lost our home, our cars, every last dime, which has gone to our defense attorney…”
When the man had come down from the mania, he attempted suicide “by swallowing over 130 prescription pills.”
Clearly, mania isn’t about an intense high that adrenaline junkies should be chasing. Mania is a hazardous symptom of a very real illness that affects 2.6 percent of Americans over the age of 18.
Unfortunately, when a person is experiencing a manic episode, they typically are unaware of the negative consequences of their behavior. An important part of learning to manage the mood swings is to look out for red flags that may indicate a dramatic shift in mood is coming.
If you or someone you know has exhibited symptoms of mania, don’t hesitate to call UNCG’s counseling center at 336-334-5340 to ask for help. Manic behavior often results in law enforcement becoming involved and immediate hospitalization, so please seek help before something dangerous happens.