Causes and Triggers

Bipolar disorder is thought to be caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals. Approximately 8 million American adults may be affected by bipolar disorder. Many people with bipolar disorder have close relatives with bipolar disorder or some form of depression.

Causes of bipolar disorder

the science of mental illness and bipolar disorder is researched

As with many mental illnesses, no one really knows what causes bipolar disorder. Doctors and researchers believe that it may be caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. It also seems tied to genetic and family history. Bipolar disorder is a real illness, like diabetes or asthma, and, just like many medical conditions, it’s no one’s fault—not yours and not your family’s. Here are some facts and figures to help you better understand who may get bipolar disorder—and when.

Bipolar disorder statistics

  • Approximately 8 million American adults may be affected by bipolar disorder
  • The number of women and men who get bipolar I disorder is about the same, while more women than men get bipolar II disorder
  • In a survey, almost half of the people who were diagnosed reported that they had 1 or more close relative—like a mother, father, or sibling—with bipolar disorder
  • Women with bipolar disorder may have more depressive episodes than manic episodes, while men are more likely to experience a manic episode
  • In bipolar I disorder, men are more likely to start with a manic episode, while women are more likely to start with a depressive episode
  • Most people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder have their first episode by their 20s. However, some people have had episodes even younger

Triggers for episodes of bipolar depression and bipolar mania

It often helps to understand the things that can potentially trigger an episode so that you can try to avoid them whenever possible. Here are some triggers and ways to help avoid them.

  • Trigger:
    Not taking your medication
    Tips that may help:
    • Making it part of a routine, setting reminders for yourself, or asking friends and family to help you remember
    • Keeping up with your medication even when you feel like you don’t need it
  • Trigger:
    You have unwanted stress in your life
    Tips that may help:
    • Keeping track of your moods and progress with a diary  (PDF)
    • Scheduling time each day to relax
    • Seeking help and encouragement from family members and friends
    • Finding and participating in support groups
  • Trigger:
    You have an inactive lifestyle
    A tip that may help:
    • Getting regular exercise* and participating in enjoyable activities

      * Talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise program

  • Trigger:
    You have an irregular sleep schedule (you don’t always get enough sleep and/or you don’t go to bed and wake up at the same time each day)
    A tip that may help:
    • Setting a routine to make sure you’re getting enough sleep on a regular basis
  • Trigger:
    You abuse alcohol or other drugs
    A tip that may help:
    • Talking to your doctor about getting the help you need to kick your addiction

Overall, people with bipolar disorder may benefit from regular patterns of daily activities, including sleeping, eating, physical and social activities.