The idea of bipolar disorder has existed for over a thousand years, though it wasn’t given serious consideration until the early 20th century. At that point, German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin coined the term “manic-depressive” and researchers have been attempting to suss out the minutiae of the disorder ever since. Unfortunately, no cure and no definitive cause has been found, yet. At this point, the combination of three culprits are thought to contribute to the development of the disorder: genetics, chemical imbalance and environmental factors.
LaRae LaBouff lives in Maine with her husband and her dog. She’s an amateur photographer and enjoys traveling, reading, writing and roller derby.Due to personal experience with Bipolar Disorder, she delved into the literature and research of the human mind. She currently writes of her own life experiences both with Psych Central and on her personal site.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
The problem with determining environmental factors is that everyone with bipolar disorder has a different story. Our environments are made up of everything we encounter from our mothers’ wombs to the particular air you’re breathing as you read this.
However, there does seem to be a pattern in environmental factors that increase the chances of developing the disorder. Unfortunately, the majority of these factors remain out of control of the patient. Basically, if you’re predisposed to bipolar disorder because of genetic and chemical imbalances, there’s nothing you can do to control whether or not it will actually develop.
According to a new research review in the Journal of Affective Disorders, there seem to be three major environmental risk factors associated with developing bipolar disorder:
That’s right, the environmental stressors that can trigger bipolar disorder start before you’re born. Pregnancy doesn’t exist in a bubble. A woman’s uterus, and therefore the fetus, is exposed to the mother’s hormone levels, the medications she takes, whether she drinks or smokes, if she gets sick and a number of other elements.
Two major factors stand out at this point when looking at what correlates with future development of bipolar disorder. First, influenza. If a mother contracts the flu during pregnancy, especially the third trimester, it significantly increases the risk that the child will eventually develop bipolar disorder. Second, for very preterm birth (<32 weeks), the risk is seven times higher than if the baby were not born prematurely.
2 Substance use
Drug or alcohol use is risky for anyone diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It turns out that substance use can also be a trigger for developing bipolar disorder in the first place. Marijuana, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines and sedatives all carry a risk of setting off a first episode in a person predisposed to bipolar disorder.
With cocaine use, you’re seven times more likely to develop bipolar disorder. If you have a history of depression, marijuana use doubles the chances of developing the disorder and triggering future episodes.
3 Physical or psychological stress
This group covers a vast array of possible triggers. Physical stress can be anything from a head injury to physical and sexual abuse. Abuse is especially a risk factor for people who have experienced major depression.
Emotional stress is also significant. This type of stress includes economic problems like losing your job, strife within your family or social circles and any type of emotional loss. If a child experiences the death of their mother before the age of 5, they are four times more likely to develop bipolar disorder. The risk of developing bipolar disorder because of a loss decreases with age, but is still significant.
These are all possible scenarios that can lead to the development of bipolar disorder if you’re predisposed. The problem is, it’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint a single event. Take me, for example. I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my lifetime, so any of them could have set the course that led to my bipolar disorder. Then again, that course may have been set before I even entered the world.
Knowing the risks may help future research and treatment, just in case we can head it off at the pass, so to speak. Until then, it may not really matter how it happened. It’s important to continue to treat what’s there.