Bipolar Disorder in Women

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition characterized by drastic and intense changes in a person’s emotions that can last from days to weeks. While bipolar disorder occurs at similar rates in men and women, the condition can present itself differently in women. How is bipolar disorder experienced differently among women and what treatment options can help?

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also previously known as manic depression, is a health condition characterized by extreme fluctuations in a person’s mood and behavior. A person with bipolar disorder typically experiences extreme mood fluctuations between depression and mania. These mood swings can affect a person’s ability to lead a productive life, including their ability to sleep and think clearly, energy levels, and behaviors. Unlike normal mood swings, which typically last only a couple hours, bipolar disorder episodes can last for days, weeks, or even longer.

There are three main types of bipolar disorder: bipolar 1, bipolar 2, and cyclothymic disorder.

Bipolar 1 disorder can be diagnosed when a person experiences a manic episode for at least one week. An episode is characterized by an extreme increase in energy. During a manic episode, a person may experience delusions of grandeur or be very irritable, among other symptoms. People with bipolar 1 may also experience depressive episodes, as well as periods of neutral mood.

Bipolar 2 disorder involves at least one episode of less-intense mania, called hypomania, which persists for at least four days. Someone with bipolar 2 can also experience periods of severe depression.

Some of the most common symptoms of manic episodes include:

  • Euphoria/elevated mood
  • Irritability
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Distractibility
  • Excessive talking
  • Participation in risky activities
  • Inflated sense of self
  • Psychosis (hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking)

Some of the most common symptoms of depressive episodes include:

  • Low energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and worthlessness
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Decreased interest or joy in daily activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Thoughts of death
  • Suicidal thoughts

A third type of bipolar disorder is called cyclothymic disorder. This involves hypomanic and depressive symptoms that are not as intense and do not last as long as those in bipolar 1 and 2. Cyclothymia is also much less common than bipolar 1 and 2.

For more in-depth information about bipolar disorder, see our Bipolar Disorder article.

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Are women more likely to experience bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder affects women and men at equal rates. But there are certain risk factors and symptoms that are more likely to impact women. Research suggests that bipolar 2 disorder is more common than bipolar 1 disorder among women. Women are also more likely to cycle through episodes more rapidly than men (Parial, 2015).

Bipolar disorder symptoms in women

While everyone with bipolar disorder experiences unique symptoms, women can present symptoms differently than men. Bipolar disorder symptoms in women, for example, are likely to present later in life compared to men. Additionally, women with bipolar disorder are twice as likely to experience depression compared to men (Diflorio & Jones, 2010). For this reason, women are often misdiagnosed with major depression instead of bipolar disorder.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders, women with bipolar 2 disorder are more likely to alternate rapidly between mood episodes. Women also tend to have cyclical episodes that are related to changes in their hormone levels.

How hormones can affect bipolar disorder

Hormones may play a big role in how women experience bipolar disorder differently than men. Women with bipolar disorder are at a higher risk of onset or relapse due to changes in their hormone levels, like those that can occur during menstruation cycles, pregnancy, and menopause.

Women who have bipolar disorder are especially at risk for experiencing an episode after giving birth, specifically a depressive episode, and for developing postpartum psychosis. Women with bipolar disorder are also at high risk of developing late-onset bipolar disorder (LOBD) which may be related to hormone level changes resulting from menopause.

Comorbidities

Women are more likely to experience certain comorbidities with bipolar disorder, such as borderline personality disorder, impulse control disorder, migraines, anxiety, insomnia, thyroid disease, and obesity (Parial, 2015).

Research also found that women with bipolar disorder were two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than men (Parial, 2015).

Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a subtype of bipolar disorder characterized by depressive symptoms experienced in response to seasonal weather changes. Approximately 15% to 22% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder experience seasonal patterns in their symptoms. Women are four times more likely to develop SAD than men (Batten, 2022).

Bipolar Disorder Resources

Treatment options

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong issue that does not have a cure. However, there are ways to manage the drastic changes in emotions and moods that can help someone with bipolar disorder live a full and productive life.

Some treatment options for bipolar disorder include:

  • Therapy
  • Light therapy
  • Family-focused therapy
  • Medication
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

A combination of different treatment options is often considered the best way to manage bipolar disorder.

When to seek emergency help

If you are having a psychiatric or medical emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department. To reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, please call or text 988.

References