Define Bipolar Disorder

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The dictionary defines bipolar disorder as the name for any of several psychological mood disorders that are characterized by alternating episodes of depression and mania (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). This is a concise and accurate definition of bipolar disorder, but it fails to capture the complexity of the illness. Bipolar disorder is more than just swings between deep depression and extreme elation - it is a mental illness that affects mood, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, perceptions, and even physical wellness.

The defining characteristic of bipolar disorder is mania or hypomania - without experiencing a manic, hypomanic, or mixed episode, a person can't be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But the way bipolar disorder presents can vary greatly from individual to individual. Some people with bipolar disorder experience numerous manic episodes, while others suffer primarily from depression. Some people have dramatic shifts in mood that occur often and quickly, sometimes even within one day, while other people with bipolar disorder have only one or a few episodes per year.

The basic textbook definition of bipolar disorder is a mood disorder with swings from depression to mania, but actually understanding bipolar disorder requires a deeper and more nuanced look at the different types of bipolar disorder and the different ways it presents in different people.

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