Causes of Bipolar Disorder

Why do we get bipolar disorder?

There are a number of factors that are believed to cause bipolar disorder. They include:

  • genetics
  • environmental factors
  • physical illnesses

For some people, the onset of bipolar disorder is linked to a stressful life event.

Genetic factors 

Bipolar disorder is frequently inherited, with genetic factors accounting for approximately 80% of the cause of the condition. Bipolar disorder is the most likely psychiatric disorder to be passed down from family. If one parent has bipolar disorder, there’s a 10% chance that their child will develop the illness. If both parents have bipolar disorder, the likelihood of their child developing bipolar disorder rises to 40%.

However, just because one family member has the illness does not mean that other family members will develop bipolar disorder.

We still need more research to fully understand the role of genetics in development of bipolar disorder.

Stressful life events

The onset of bipolar disorder can sometimes be linked to stressful life events.

People with bipolar disorder can find it beneficial to learn ways of managing and reducing stress as emotional pressure can trigger relapse.

Seasonal factors

While not a direct cause, seasonal factors appear to play a role in the onset of bipolar disorder, with the chance of onset increasing in spring.

The rapid increase in hours of bright sunshine is thought to trigger depression and mania by affecting the pineal gland.

Physical illness

Physical illness by itself is not a cause of bipolar disorder, but in some instances can cause symptoms that could be confused with mania or hypomania.

Some medications (such as steroids) and certain illicit stimulant drugs can also cause manic and hypomanic symptoms.


Antidepressants can trigger manic or hypomanic episodes in some people. It’s important to report any unusual symptoms to your prescribing doctor while on these medications.

Certain substances can lead to a high that resembles mania. These include:

  • drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines
  • medicine for hormonal problems like prednisone or other corticosteroids
  • very large amounts of caffeine.

Pregnancy and perinatal period

Bipolar disorder can begin during pregnancy or after the birth of a baby. This might be a first episode, or a continuation or relapse of the condition.

Women who have previously experienced bipolar disorder or who have a family history of the condition are at an increased risk of an episode at this time.

It’s important to be aware of the early warning signs, and for family and friends to be aware of these symptoms.

There are special considerations that need to be made in treating bipolar disorder in pregnant and breastfeeding women. Some medications may be harmful to the developing baby, and careful management by a psychiatrist and other medical staff is needed at this time.

Always talk to your GP or a mental health professional if you are planning a pregnancy, or are pregnant and are experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Ongoing care during pregnancy and after birth is very important.

What can we do to recover from bipolar disorder?

When our mood swings are taking over the way we function in everyday life, it’s important to get help.

There are effective treatments for bipolar disorder, from medications to psychological therapies and lifestyle changes.

There are also lots of things you can do to help yourself. Often it’s a combination of things that help us get better, such as:

  • a well-informed team of health professionals you feel comfortable talking to
  • the right medical and psychological therapies
  • a wellbeing plan to keep you on track
  • support from family and friends
  • keeping up regular sleep, exercise and healthy eating
  • learning to recognise warning signs and triggers for relapse.

More Bipolar articles ➜

Read personal stories  ➜

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