By On February 23rd, 2015

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

Mental illnesses have plenty of stereotypes – and even more myths – but they can be surprisingly hard to diagnose, let alone predict. This is especially true for people who experience bipolar disorder.

The condition often appears suddenly, which often makes those affected brush off their struggles as mood swings or exhaustion. It can be particularly difficult to accept the condition when you have been mentally healthy up until that point.

It can be difficult to guess whether you are likely to be affected by bipolar disorder in your lifetime, but there are some contributing factors which play a role in the development of the disorder. For example, scientists have well established that specific genes are linked to an increased risk of bipolar disorder.

Still, there are many other things linked to the development of bipolar disorder which are less well known.


Genetics are the most well-established contributors to bipolar disorder and are still one of the most accurate predictors. The genes behind bipolar disorder are often passed through family, meaning relatives of individuals with bipolar disorder also see an increased risk.

Yet Medical Daily says there are other related genes which are yet to be fully known, citing a study published recently in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found concentrations of rare gene variants may also be linked to the formation of bipolar disorder.

“There are many different variants in many different genes that contribute to the genetic risk,” Jared Roach, a geneticist at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle and an author of the study, said. “We think that most people with bipolar disorder will have inherited several of these… risk variants.”

It is important to note though, genes are not the deciding factor in the development of bipolar disorder. “Studies of identical twins have shown that the twin of a person with bipolar illness does not always develop the disorder, despite the fact that identical twins share all of the same genes,” the National Institutes of Health (NIH) writes on its website. “Research suggests that factors besides genes are also at work,” such as environmental factors.

Anxiety, Depression, and Other Mental Disorders

Research has shown individuals who suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or social phobia have an elevated risk of developing bipolar disorder. In fact, even experiencing stressful events or periods of grief may also increase the risk of bipolar disorder.

Many researchers believe this link explains the high association between bipolar disorder and PTSD. Between 11 to 39 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder also meet the criteria for PTSD. Whether one condition directly causes the other is currently unknown.

A wide variety of traumatic experiences such as physical or sexual abuse are to bipolar disorder. But, some statistics suggest individuals with bipolar disorder are more likely to have to traumatic experiences during a manic episode, indicating PTSD developed after.

Previous research has also shown children with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are potentially more likely to develop bipolar disorder later in life.

Substance Abuse

Traumatic experiences often cause individuals to turn towards drugs and alcohol to cope. This coping strategy never works though as substance abuse issues only amplify depression or mood issues, potentially contributing to the development of bipolar disorder. Substance abuse also exacerbates the symptoms of bipolar disorder, making sadness or manic feelings more intense.

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