What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

A Look at What Causes Bipolar Disorder

If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or you are concerned your symptoms meet the criteria, it makes sense you would be interested in learning more about the condition, its signs, and its causes.

The good news is that over the years, experts in the field of mental health have worked diligently to gain a solid understanding of what bipolar disorder is and the likely symptoms (as well as the lesser common symptoms of bipolar disorder) that present.

The bad news is no one really knows what causes bipolar disorder. In fact, be wary of any person or organization that promotes a complete understanding of the roots of bipolar disorder — this simply is not true.

Bipolar Disorder: Not a Cause and Effect

People will say bipolar is caused by genetics, biology, a “chemical imbalance,” or a problematic life situation. It is challenging to say any of these aspects cause bipolar disorder because it attempts to create a cause and effect relationship — this type of relationship has never been established.


Having a parent (or two) with bipolar disorder does not automatically mean you will have the condition. Having an identical twin with bipolar disorder does not mean you will. These two facts work to disprove a direct cause and effect relationship between genetics and bipolar.


Studies have shown people with bipolar disorder have brains that look differently from those that do not have the condition. Namely, their prefrontal cortex is smaller compared to the average.


This does not necessarily mean smaller or underdeveloped brains cause bipolar, though. In fact, it could be possible that bipolar causes smaller prefrontal lobes, as they seem to shrink when bipolar is untreated.

Chemical Imbalance

People love to say bipolar, or any mental health complaint, is caused by a “chemical imbalance.”

There is evidence to support this, as studies have found people with bipolar disorder, especially those in a depressive episode, respond well to treatments that increase the amount of certain neurotransmitters available in the brain like serotonin and norepinephrine. Again, it could be that bipolar causes this rather than being caused by it.

Environmental Events

People claim a life filled with chronic stress or one intensely stressful situation will cause bipolar, and this appears true, but it does not account for individual differences.

What about siblings who experience the same negative childhood? What about people in a bus crash where one person’s bipolar disorder is triggered while those in the next seat have no lasting effects? It seems environmental triggers alone cannot cause bipolar disorder.

The Role of Risk Factors

Instead of viewing each of the above items as a cause of bipolar, consider each of them to be a risk factor for the condition. A risk factor is a contributor to an unwanted condition or state of being. In this case, the risk factors increase the odds of having bipolar disorder.

Having multiple family members with bipolar disorder will be a significant risk factor. Stressful circumstances will carry a risk that increases proportionally with the stress. Having a stressful semester at school will pose a small risk, and a lifetime of emotional abuse will have a higher risk.

More serious problems arise when multiple risk factors are working in conjunction to trigger the disorder. If someone has the genetic, biological, chemical, and environmental risk factors associated to bipolar disorder, it will be more likely for it to present.

Finding Protection

Risk factors will contribute to bipolar disorder, but there is another side: protective factors. As the name suggests, these features will shelter a person from having bipolar disorder by reducing the overall risk.

If protective factors can outweigh risk factors, then you might be spared from bipolar disorder or another mental illness.

Protective factors include people, activities, events, and ways of thinking that leave a helpful, positive impression on your life. Examples include:

  • Having a safe, supportive environment.
  • Building and maintaining strong relationships with family and friends.
  • Being financially stable and secure.
  • Being mentally and physically healthy.
  • Feeling a sense of purpose and direction in life.

Unfortunately, there is no way to calculate the “worth” of a protective factor versus a risk factor as the value will depend on unique needs of the individual. Additionally, there may be some sets of risk factors that are impossible to balance no matter how many protective factors are available.

In this example, bipolar disorder will present regardless of the attempt to increase protective factors.

It is always worthwhile to explore and expand upon your protective factors, though. Even if you cannot prevent the expression of bipolar disorder, you can do much to limit the symptoms and negative influence of the condition by increasing the supports in your life.

There is no cause and effect in the world of mental health. There are no tests or scans that can determine your level of risk or the true source of your condition.

Because of this, it might be more beneficial to skip questions of “why” and “how” to focus on “what’s next?” If bipolar is a risk or reality, protective factors should be your focus.

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