What causes bipolar disorder?

Like other mental illnesses, bipolar disorder doesn’t have a single cause. Instead it has a variety of causes, called risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop bipolar disorder.

There are many risk factors for bipolar disorder, but here are a few examples:

  • Genetics. Bipolar disorder often runs in the family.
  • Environment. Living in a stressful environment can make you more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Things like living in poverty or having an abusive family put a lot of stress on your brain and often trigger mania or depression.
  • Childhood trauma. Even if you’re no longer in a stressful environment, things that happened to you as a child can have an impact later in life.
  • Stressful events: like losing a loved one, or being in a car accident.
  • Unhealthy habits: like not getting enough sleep, or not eating.
  • Drugs and alcohol: Abusing drugs and alcohol puts you at higher risk of developing bipolar disorder. It can also make it harder to recover from bipolar disorder. Some drugs—including some medications—can trigger manic or depressive episodes.
  • Brain chemistry. Bipolar disorder involves an imbalance of natural chemicals in your brain and your body.

These risk factors don’t just affect who will develop bipolar disorder in the first place. They also affect how severe their symptoms will be, and when they will experience those symptoms. Sometimes, a manic or depressive episode is triggered by a stressful event. Other times, it just happens.

You can also improve your own mental health by taking action to reduce your risk factors. That might include seeking treatment, like medication or therapy.

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