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The 6 Early Signs of Bipolar Disorder You Should Know About

Est. reading time: 5 mins
Posted Under: Insights

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW


Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that involves uncharacteristic shifts in a person’s mood that can impact all areas of daily functioning and life. Imagine a rollercoaster of human emotions, where the highs and lows come in waves of extremes alongside huge shifts in energy, activity and concentration levels. For those with Bipolar Disorder and their loved ones, receiving the diagnosis can be an extremely difficult and overwhelming experience. However, it’s important to remember that with proper treatment and support, individuals with Bipolar Disorder can learn to navigate the highs and lows, find stability, and reclaim their lives. 

At The Dorm, we are experts at treating young adults with Bipolar Disorders with an integrative, evidence-based and empowering approach. In this blog post, we will detail the different forms of Bipolar, share why the diagnosis often comes during the young adult years, and explain the six early signs families and loved ones can look out for if they think someone might need professional support or early intervention.

Understanding the Difference Between the Two Types of Bipolar Disorder: 

  1. Bipolar I can be indicated if an individual has a history of at least one manic episode. A manic episode is an abrupt change in mood that can be extreme in any way, such as euphoric or angry, commonly presenting with psychotic features, such as delusions or hallucinations. 

These “high-highs” as Alexa Connors, Assistant Director at The Dorm UWS calls them, are followed by really “low-lows” of severe depression that can include an inability to get out of bed, hopelessness, and/or anhedonia or loss of motivation for everyday activities. This type of Bipolar Disorder can be considered more urgent and acute because of the risk of mania, which if left untreated can result in problems with the law and/or needing forced medications through injection.

  1. Bipolar II is characterized by a varying mood that could be neutral to high to low, and the highs are much less extreme than traditional manic episodes, thus are called hypomanic states. This can look like someone who is suddenly more energized than usual, not sleeping as much, and/or exhibiting impulsivity that is out of character. However, the depressive episodes may be just as severe as those with Major Depressive Disorder and/or Bipolar I Disorder.

The Most Common Time to be Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder: Young Adulthood

The most common age to be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder is 25 years old, however individuals can be diagnosed as young as 12.  A diagnosis is considered early onset bipolar when symptoms emerge prior to the age of 12 and research has found that these early onset individuals tend to have a family history of ADHD, conduct disorder, anxiety disorders, trauma, substance dependence, suicidal behavior, and/or suicide attempt.

According to Connors, the early 20s is when Bipolar Disorder can really start to show as many individuals experience an inflection point of change with this developmental phase of life marked by specific neurochemical changes as well as new environmental stressors, and life challenges. 

Regardless of the age of diagnosis, the early signs are very similar and important to know for friends and loved ones:

6 Early Signs of Bipolar Disorder To Look Out For

  1. Stressful life events or periods of chronic stress that result in uncharacteristic changes in mood, especially for those with a genetic predisposition.
  2. An increase in energy that is more than usual for that individual. This can look like pressured speech or talking rapidly.
  3. An increased sense of confidence and/or elated way of speaking about oneself that is out of touch with reality. 
  4. Impulsive behaviors such as risky sex, spending, drinking, drug use, partying, to the point where this is out of control and interferes with activities of daily living.
  5. Suddenly becoming very easily distracted, for example being unable to sit still or extremely restless to the point at which someone cannot concentrate.
  6. Drastic changes in sleep schedule, such as going days without sleeping.

Each of the signs are relative to the person and what is out of character for them, evidenced by drastic shifts in personality. 

How We Offer Treatment Support for Young Adults with Bipolar Disorder at The Dorm

Robust and proactive treatment for Bipolar Disorder is essential. In the below list, Connors has identified some key aspects of intensive outpatient treatment at The Dorm that contribute to and support symptom-reduction:

Medication Management: 

In Bipolar Disorder, getting on the right medication is extremely important for leveling out of mood and mitigating symptoms that can put the individual at danger. Within the first two weeks of programming clients meet with our consulting psychiatrist to be assessed for psychiatric treatment history and ongoing medication needs. Following the initial appointment, clients have the opportunity to meet with our psychiatrist on an ongoing basis to ensure efficacy and oversight of prescribed medications. Because medication is such an important component for those with Bipolar Disorder, clients may also utilize process groups as an opportunity to discuss any hesitancy around the medication, which often results in better medication compliance.

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Evidenced-Based Individual Psychotherapy for Young Adults with Bipolar Disorder

While medication is an extremely important aspect of treating Bipolar Disorder, it is the combination of effective medication and psychoeducational treatment that helps clients to stabilize and sustain recovery.  

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): 

Research  shows that CBT is an effective treatment modality for clients with Bipolar Disorder, as it encompasses assessment, psychoeducation, and methods for dealing with mood episodes and prevention. Whether clients are struggling with manic or depressive states, CBT will assist in reducing negative self-beliefs and targeting maladaptive thinking patterns that impact the way clients are thinking about themselves. The psychoeducation piece can benefit the client both at the beginning of the therapy process and in maintenance of relapse prevention.

Group Therapy for Young Adults with Bipolar Disorder

Group therapy programming is clinically beneficial to clients with Borderline Personality Disorder because peer to peer support can help reduce stigma and shame around diagnosis and symptoms. Further, groups are a valuable opportunity for clients to relate to one another and find their feelings being normalized. Connors shares that there is an important therapeutic benefit to  peers challenging one another’s negative self-beliefs and thought patterns, ultimately strengthening the potential for clinical recovery. Some Dorm specific groups for clients with Borderline Personality Disorder include:

Executive Function Group

This group is centered around activities of daily living and the adherence to schedules, to-dos, and daily tasks. Through learning the modules in this group, clients will learn skills and tactics that increase adherence to medication management. 

Seeking Safety Group

This process group is designed to include elements of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients build the necessary coping skills to process trauma. Due to the impulsive and risky behavior that often accompanies an episode of mania, unpacking residual shame, fear, or traumatic events that occurred during manic episodes can be an essential step in healing for many clients. While processing in individual therapy is important and can be highly effective, doing so in groups is transformative for building a peer to peer support system.

The Importance of Therapeutic Community for Young Adults with Bipolar Disorder

Having peer support is essential for both achieving and sustaining Bipolar Disorder recovery. In fact, research shows that low levels of social support are linked to only partial recovery and a greater likelihood of relapse 1-year post-treatment. 

At The Dorm, the community and social experience is embedded as part of the treatment with a vast array of peer group therapy opportunities as well as opportunities to engage in social activities in our Community Clubhouse space where clients, regardless of diagnosis, can come together in a clinically-supervised safe space to engage in conversation, develop friendships, and relax between sessions.

In conclusion, it’s essential to recognize that Bipolar Disorder is a multifaceted condition that demands our attention and understanding. The stakes are high; misdiagnosis or untreated symptoms can lead to exacerbation and prolonged suffering. However, amidst the complexity, there’s hope. By familiarizing ourselves with the six signs outlined in this blog, we empower ourselves and those around us to intervene early and seek the support needed. Let’s spread awareness, extend compassion, and together, pave the way for brighter tomorrows in the journey towards mental wellness.

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