10 Causes & Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder – Search Site Content

10 Causes & Risk Factors for Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is an incredibly common mental health concern. In the United States, there are around 5.7 million adults who live with this condition. Bipolar disorder seems to affect people of all genders and backgrounds equally. This condition usually surfaces when patients are in their 20s, but can start as late as their 50s. 

What Increases the Risk for Bipolar Disorder?

The exact causal factors of bipolar disorder are still unknown. However, researchers have identified several commonalities that all contribute to this condition. In other words, they have been able to spot a few common causes across people with bipolar disorder. The following are some of the risk factors to look out for if you are concerned you might have bipolar disorder... 

10. Family History

By far the most common risk factor is your family history. Research is still ongoing as to the specific causes of bipolar disorder, but what is clear is that having an immediate biological family member with this condition significantly increases your odds of also having it. 

Why Family History Increases Risk

While researchers do not know specific genetic causes, they have been able to determine that having a first-degree relative with bipolar disorder dramatically increases your odds of also having it. In other words, if you have a biological sibling or parent with bipolar disorder, your risk can be much higher than average. 

One of the factors that plays into this increased risk is that family members share biological traits... 

9. Biology

Each of us has our own unique biology. Namely, our brain chemistry and physiological structure change ever so slightly from person to person. While certain differences cause immediately recognizable medical problems, conditions like bipolar disorders are a little more difficult to pin down. 

Why Biological Differences Increases Risk

There is some early research that suggests bipolar disorder might be the result of changes in brain chemistry or the physical structure of the brain. However, this research is still in its early stages. Many doctors will take a brain scan to study areas of the brain in patients with bipolar disorder, but the condition is still diagnosed by a psychologist based on a person's symptoms and personal history.

Of course, while we share close biology with biological family members, the family (biological or not) and space we grew up with can also factor in bipolar disorder risk...

8. Environmental Factors

Our environments are another factor we typically share with our immediate family members; bipolar disorder appears to have a strong relationship with our environment. Much like with other medical conditions, the world around us can have an enormous impact on our risk of developing bipolar disorder. 

Why Environmental Factors Increase Risk

Our environment is everything around us that isn’t our biology. That covers everything from your physical living condition all the way to the social environment you inhabit. That means that these factors can have serious impacts on our health and well-being. Bipolar disorder, as such, can respond to a variety of environment triggers, including our living situation, work conditions, and our social lives. 

One of the biggest factors for causing the onset of bipolar disorder is the following... 

7. Stress

Stress is something we all experience. Your average day-to-day stress isn’t impactful enough to trigger the onset of bipolar disorder, though. Extreme or chronic stress, on the other hand, can be. When we come up against major life stressors, we can push our mental fortitude to its limit. 

Why Stress Increases Risk

Chronic and extreme stress quickly wear down more than just the mind. In fact, our physical health can be destabilized by this extreme type of stress. When we face these intense forms of stress, we need to rely on proper coping techniques, the people close to us, and society in order to get by. Without that safety net, we run the risk of getting hurt both physically and mentally. 

Let’s take a closer look at a few of the stressors that can contribute to bipolar disorder... 

6. Substance Abuse

Substance abuse problems have wide-ranging health effects; it’s no secret that the negative health conditions caused by substance abuse have been well-documented. However, one of the areas that doesn't often get the attention it deserves is bipolar disorder. 

Why Substance Abuse Increases Risk

Substance abuse can be the root cause of many mental health problems. In individuals with a predisposition to bipolar disorder, substance abuse can be the trigger that starts their condition. Substance abuse not only comes with its own impact on our overall health, but also contributes to other stressors that can trigger bipolar disorders as well. 

A particular type of substance abuse worth taking a closer look at is alcoholism... 

5. Alcohol Use

Moderate alcohol consumption appears safe for people with a family history of bipolar disorder. However, alcohol abuse can quickly precipitate the onset of this condition. 

Why Alcohol Use Increases Risk

Alcohol as a risk factor shares many common hazards as other substance abuse, but there are some specific differences. One is just how common alcohol abuse is in our society; this drug is readily available, which increases the risk of abuse. It can also be easily disguised as “partying” and hide some of its ill effects. People with a risk of bipolar disorder should therefore carefully monitor their alcohol use in order to avoid any potential risks. 

When it comes to stress that can cause bipolar disorders to manifest, major life changes are a serious concern... 

4. Major Life Changes

We go through many changes in our lives. When we head off to college, get married, and even experience the death of someone close to us, we can dramatically change how we live. For people with a predisposition to bipolar disorder, these major changes pose a serious risk. 

Why Major Life Changes Increase Risk

Major life changes represent huge shifts in how we live. They can be changes in stability, health, and our community. These changes also represent major spikes in stress as we learn to navigate our post-change world. Bipolar disorder can emerge as a result of the stress from these life changes. 

A specific life change worth looking at? Severe medical problems... 

3. Medical Problems

Our health is interconnected. Namely, the health of our bodies is fundamentally tied into the health of our minds. Any medical problem has the potential to contribute to our bipolar disorder risk, but ones that are particularly sudden, severe, or life changing have a higher risk. 

Why Medical Problems Increase Risk

These medical conditions can change our lives, which contributes to our risk for bipolar disorder. They might represent sudden shifts in our ability to interact with the world, the hobbies and jobs we used to love, and how we connect with the people we love. When we encounter these major health concerns, we come up against stressors that are extremely difficult to face. This all can contribute to bipolar disorder. 

Medical conditions can also contribute to financial and legal troubles, which might trigger bipolar disorder as well... 

2. Legal and Financial Trouble

Let’s face it: money concerns are a real issue. We rely on our income for everything from housing to healthcare. If our income becomes destabilized, we can come up against some severe bipolar disorders risks. 

Why Legal and Financial Trouble Increases Risk

Like with many of our causes of bipolar disorder, stress is the key factor. A parking ticket might not mean much for someone with a significant income, but for another person it can mean legal trouble and a large debt. The stress of our financial situations taking a hit can snowball into bipolar disorder in individuals with a predisposition for the condition. 

Navigating these intense stressors is all about having the proper mechanisms in place to deal with them when they arise... 

1. Lack of Strong Coping Mechanisms 

Strong coping mechanisms get us through the hardest times in our lives. We rely on our ability to face these significant changes and stressors. When we don’t have adequate strategies for dealing with a particular stressor, we can run the risk of triggering bipolar disorder. 

Why a Lack of Strong Coping Mechanisms Increases Risk

Stress is incredibly relative. Each person, in other words, has their own way of handling stress and some techniques are more effective than others. This fact is also true for the stressors themselves. The techniques that can help someone handle moving out of their parent’s home for the first time might not work during a personal financial crisis. Learning how to handle stress is a key part of mitigating bipolar disorder risk. 

Final Thoughts

Preventing the onset of bipolar disorder is all about mitigating these risk factors. If you already know you have a familial predisposition to this disorder, you can take steps to avoid compounding that risk. Connecting with a therapist is a great way to head off any risk factors and work on your stress management strategies. 


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