What causes bipolar disorder?

No one knows exactly what causes bipolar disorder. Lots of recent research has focused on looking for causes in genetics or the biology of the brain, but many researchers also believe social factors may play a part, such as difficult life events or experiencing trauma as a child.

Childhood trauma

Some experts believe you may develop bipolar disorder if you experienced severe emotional distress as a child, such as:

  • sexual or physical abuse
  • neglect
  • traumatic events
  • losing someone very close to you, like a parent or carer

This could be because experiencing trauma and distress as a child can have a big effect on your ability to regulate your emotions.

Stressful life events

You may be able to link the start of your symptoms to a very stressful period in your life, such as:

  • a relationship breakdown
  • money worries and poverty
  • experiencing a traumatic loss.

Although lower levels of stress are unlikely to cause bipolar disorder, they can trigger an episode of mania or depression.

Self-esteem problems

Some researchers believe that a manic episode may be a way to escape from feeling very depressed or having very low self-esteem. It may be that when you feel very bad about yourself, mania increases your self-confidence to help you cope.

Brain chemistry

Evidence shows that bipolar symptoms can be treated with certain psychiatric medications, which are known to act on the neurotransmitters (messenger chemicals) in your brain. This suggests that bipolar disorder may be related to problems with the function of these neurotransmitters and this is supported by some research. However, no one knows for certain what exactly these problems are, or what causes them.

Genetic inheritance

If you experience bipolar disorder, you are more likely to have a family member who also experiences bipolar symptoms (though they might not have a diagnosis). This suggests that bipolar disorder might be passed on through families.

However, this does not necessarily mean that there is a ‘bipolar gene’ family links are likely to be much more complex. For example, researchers think that environmental factors can also be triggers for experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder. And for most people, family members are an influential part of your environment as you grow up.

Can drugs cause bipolar disorder?

Medication, drugs or alcohol can’t cause you to develop bipolar disorder, but they can cause you to experience some bipolar symptoms. For example:

  • Some antidepressants can cause mania or hypomania as a side effect. If you begin to experience mania after taking antidepressants for depression, this might lead your doctor to give you an incorrect diagnosis of bipolar disorder, or prescribe you more medication. But in this case, it’s usually worth waiting to see if your symptoms pass without treatment first.
  • Alcohol or street drugs can cause you to experience symptoms similar to both mania and depression. It can often be difficult to distinguish the effects of alcohol and drugs from your mental health symptoms. If you’re concerned about the effects of medication, alcohol or street drugs on your mental health, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor.
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