What are the causes of bipolar disorder?

Find out about the potential causes and triggers for bipolar disorder.

On this page: Causes Triggers
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This page was medically reviewed by Dr Olakunle Oladinni, Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director based at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, in January 2023.

While more research is needed in this area, it’s acknowledged that there are likely to be a number of risk factors and causes for bipolar disorder. Here, we discuss these in more detail and provide information on how to get help for bipolar disorder.

What causes bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a complex mental health condition that causes someone to experience mood swings. These can range from the 'highs' of mania to the 'lows' of depression.

The exact cause of bipolar disorder isn’t yet known. However, there are a number of psychological, biological and social factors which are thought to play a role in the condition developing and progressing.

Data from The Centre for Genetics Education suggests that if an immediate family member (such as a parent or sibling) has bipolar disorder, then you're significantly more likely to develop the condition than someone who has no family history of bipolar disorder.

While this suggests bipolar disorder does have a genetic link, it doesn’t mean it’s the only cause. Only 8% of children who have parents with bipolar disorder develop it themselves, leaving the other 92% who don’t develop bipolar disorder. The following analogy can help:

If you put 100 children with one parent who has bipolar disorder in one room, and 100 children without a parent with bipolar disorder in another room, eight of those in the first room would develop bipolar disorder, while only one of those in the second room would.

Research is still ongoing to try and find specific genes that can cause someone to develop bipolar disorder.

It’s believed that people with bipolar disorder have an imbalance of certain chemicals (neurotransmitters) in their brain. These are specifically those that regulate mood and behaviour. Medications used to treat bipolar disorder symptoms impact on these chemicals, suggesting that bipolar disorder might be linked to how neurotransmitters function. However, more research is needed to help us understand exactly how these neurotransmitters work and how they’re linked to bipolar disorder.

There are also a number of environmental factors that may be linked to bipolar disorder. These include:

Going through stressful events

People with bipolar disorder might be able to trace the start of a depressive or manic episode back to a particularly stressful period in their life. This can include events like a relationship breakdown, losing your job, going through a bereavement or experiencing pressure at work. It’s thought that stress can trigger a bipolar disorder episode, or make your bipolar symptoms even more intense and harder to manage.

Medication, alcohol and drug use

Certain substances can cause people to experience symptoms associated with bipolar disorder. For example, certain medications, recreational drugs or alcohol can cause mania, hypomanic episodes and depression. These mimic the symptoms experienced in the different types of bipolar disorder.

Substance abuse disorders 

Some research suggests that substance abuse can increase someone’s risk of developing bipolar disorder. Existing studies, like this one in Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, found that 61% of people with bipolar type I disorder had a lifetime history of any drug or alcohol use disorder. In those with bipolar type II disorder, the figure was 48%. It isn’t clear why the level of comorbidity is so high, but explanations include shared risk factors for the two disorders and the use of substances to limit symptoms of bipolar disorder

When the above risk factors are combined with pre-existing genetic and brain chemistry factors, this can make it even more likely that someone will develop bipolar disorder.

How to manage bipolar disorder

For a person with bipolar disorder, there are strategies that can be put in place to help them manage their extreme mood shifts, so they have less of an impact on daily life.

These include:

  • Building a good support network
  • Monitoring behaviours and changes
  • Maintaining a healthy routine
  • Accepting treatment and support
  • Having a plan for emergencies

Learn more about the ways to manage bipolar related behaviours here.

Can trauma trigger bipolar disorder?

As well as stressful life events, going through something traumatic can also mean that someone is at increased risk of developing bipolar disorder. This is especially the case if the trauma happened when you were a child. Going through intense emotional distress as a child can have a negative impact on your ability to manage your emotions as you grow into adulthood.

Traumatic events that can be linked to bipolar disorder include:

  • Experiencing some form of abuse as a child, whether this was physical, sexual or emotional
  • Experiencing severe neglect as a child
  • Losing someone significant in your life, such as a parent or carer, when you were a child
  • Being the victim of a crime at a young age
  • Being involved in an accident, such as a car crash, at a young age
  • Being a refugee or a victim of war at a young age

What can trigger bipolar disorder?

As well as the potential causes and risk factors outlined above, there are also a number of things that happen in our day-to-day lives that could trigger the symptoms of bipolar disorder or a mood episode. These could include:

  • Experiencing poor sleep over a long period of time
  • Being diagnosed with a physical illness
  • Changes in the seasons
  • A significant life change such as getting divorced or moving house
  • Going through childbirth
  • Consuming too much caffeine

However, it’s also important to recognise that for some people, bipolar disorder develops without any clear triggers or causes.

Treatment for bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder can have a profound impact on your day-to-day life. However, bipolar disorder treatment can help you to manage your symptoms and live your life to the fullest. Treatment for bipolar disorder usually consists of a combination of therapeutic methods, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and carefully controlled medication. Call today to find out how Priory can support you to cope with your bipolar disorder.

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