Understanding the Cycle of Bipolar Disorder

The definition of a cycle in bipolar disorder, a mental illness that involves extreme mood swings, is the time in which someone goes from an episode of mania to one of depression (or hypomania to depression). The frequency of these cycles cannot be determined definitively.

Bipolar cycles are as diverse as the individuals who have them. It depends on the subject whether the mood swing is for just an hour, a day, a week, or even months.

A person with bipolar disorder usually experiences one or two cycles per year, with manic episodes generally occurring in the spring or fall.

According to a 2010 study of

, mood episodes lasted on average 13 weeks.  People who have bipolar disorder usually have one or two cycles a year on average. The frequency of manic episodes varies according to the season. They are more prevalent in the spring and fall.

Triggers in Bipolar Disease

People with bipolar disorder are known to experience symptoms of certain conditions. Understanding and avoiding these triggers can minimize symptoms and limit the number of cycles a person experiences. These include:

  • Altercations with loved ones
  • Alcohol and drug misuse
  • Certain medications and antidepressants
  • A change in seasons
  • Insufficient sleep
  • Conditions related to pregnancy and hormones
  • Grief over losing a loved one
  • Events like starting an important project, falling in love, going on vacation, listening to loud music, and decreasing physical activity.

Rapid Cycling in Bipolar Disease

Rapid cycling is characterized by four or more cycles within a 12-month period. Even though having four or more cycles in a year qualifies for a diagnosis of rapid-cycling bipolar illness, rapid cycling is not necessarily a permanent pattern of behavior. Rapid cycling can present at any time during the disease. It can also be transient.

Only about 10% to 20% of Americans who have bipolar disorder will experience rapid cycling.

A higher risk of rapid cycling appears to exist in young individuals when symptoms first appeared, in those with such disorders for more extended periods of time, and in those who abuse alcohol and other substances.

Furthermore, the term “ultra-rapid cycling” can refer to those who cycle through episodes within a month or less. Within 24 hours, this pattern might be termed “ultra-ultra-rapid cycling.” It is often challenging to distinguish ultradian cycling from mixed cycling.

Treating Bipolar Disorder

There are treatments available to those with bipolar disease, regardless of how often they experience a cycle. These include:

  • Medications, like mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants
  • Psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (commonly called “shock therapy”)
  • Educating and managing oneself
  • Meditation and other complementary and alternative health practices


When you need help, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor or mental healthcare provider.

In the event of depressive episodes, dial 800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Our counselors are on call every day of the week. Anonymity is guaranteed.