Living With Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder, which causes extreme high and low moods called mania and depression, is a challenging mental illness to live with. Learning to manage bipolar disorder begins with diagnosis and treatment, which includes therapy and medications. Additionally, patients with bipolar disorder improve symptoms by monitoring moods and triggers for mood swings, sticking to a daily routine, being socially engaged, and managing stress with good self-care.
Living with any mental illness can be difficult, but the mood swings that characterize bipolar disorder present special challenges. To go from depression to mania and back again is disorienting, and can make a person feel out of control. While it may seem hopeless at times, it is possible to live well with bipolar disorder. This means starting with a diagnosis and a treatment plan.
By committing to and engaging with long-term therapy and a medication plan, a patient diagnosed with bipolar disorder can get relief, have fewer and less severe mood swings, and learn skills for coping with this condition on a daily basis. In addition to professional treatment, living well with bipolar disorder means establishing a routine, relying on family and friends for support, monitoring triggers and subtle mood changes, and committing to good self-care.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes extreme mood swings between feeling emotionally high and emotionally low. The high moods are called mania or hypomania, and the low moods are called depression. The symptoms of bipolar depression are similar to those caused by major depression and include feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities, fatigue, changes in sleeping and eating habits, difficulty thinking, feelings of shame, and suicidal thoughts.
Manic moods caused by bipolar disorder are on the opposite end of the spectrum from depression, but although they are elevated moods, they are not healthy. Mania can cause jumpiness, high energy, a decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts, distractibility, exaggerated self-confidence, and risky, impulsive behaviors. There are three different types of bipolar disorder that may be diagnosed:
- Bipolar I disorder. This type of bipolar disorder can be severe and causes depression and full blown manic episodes. The manic episodes may be severe enough to trigger psychosis, a break from reality.
- Bipolar II disorder. Bipolar II causes depressive episodes and hypomania, a less severe form of mania. There are no fully manic episodes with this condition. The depressive episodes are usually longer than those seen in bipolar I.
- Cyclothymic disorder. Cyclothymia may be diagnosed when an individual has milder depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes off and on for two years or longer.
The mood swings caused by bipolar disorder present many challenges for individuals and their loved ones. This condition can cause serious impairments, such as poor performance in school, difficulty keeping a job, and troubled relationships or social isolation. The impulsivity caused by mania can lead to physical injuries, legal problems, and other consequences, and the disorder can even lead to suicide. Learning to live with bipolar disorder is possible, though, and the symptoms can be managed.
Engage in Appropriate Treatment
The most important factor in learning to live with bipolar disorder is to get good treatment and to really engage in it and commit to the process for the long-term. Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with no cure, which means that treatment must be ongoing, so those diagnosed with it must be prepared to make treatment a part of life indefinitely. There are two important components to treatment for bipolar disorder: medications and psychotherapy.
Several different types of medication can be used to treat bipolar disorder. Each individual may benefit from a different combination of medications, and it can take some time to determine that best match. It is important to be patient and to stick with it to find out what drugs will work best. Some of the medication types that may be used include antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, antidepressant-antipsychotic combination drugs, and anti-anxiety drugs.
Medications are not enough to successfully manage bipolar disorder. Therapy is also a crucial element. Types of therapy that may be used to treat bipolar disorder include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy teaches patients to recognize and change unhealthy, negative patterns of thoughts and behaviors.
- Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy. This type of therapy uses daily routine to stabilize moods.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Using eye movements, this therapy disrupts negative thought patterns to help establish more positive ones. Originally used to treat trauma, this therapy has been useful for a range of mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder.
- Family therapy and psychoeducation. Developing healthy relationships is important for people with bipolar disorder, so family therapy is often a part of treatment. Psychoeducation is used to help loved ones learn more about the illness and how to support someone living with it.
To get the most out of treatment it is important to fully engage with it. Starting treatment in a residential setting is a good way to do that. It allows an individual to have an extended period of time in which to really focus on treatment in a safe environment.
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Recognize Triggers and Monitor Mood
A major goal for people with bipolar disorder is to increase stability in moods and to avoid the extreme highs and lows. It is important for individuals to monitor their moods, using strategies like mood journals to stay on top of how they feel, how their moods shift, and to identify any factors that trigger mania or depression. By understanding how moods change and how external and internal factors trigger mood shifts, a person can learn to identify depression or mania early.
Being more aware of moods and triggers can also help an individual with bipolar disorder recognize early warning signs of a change in mood. Early recognition that mood is going to shift allows a person to be proactive and to take steps that will help minimize the swing in mood. These steps differ by individual, but may include getting more sleep, getting some exercise, or adding an extra therapy session.
Establish a Routine
Sticking with a daily routine supports mood stabilization in individuals with bipolar disorder, and is another tool that can be used to prevent mood swings or minimize their extremes. Creating structure and routine includes establishing a schedule for everything from meals and sleeping to chores and even social activities. It is important to stick to a routine even as mood shifts and cycles. Doing so can provide greater stabilization even in the midst of depression or mania.
Reach out for Social Support
For any type of mental illness, getting support from others and being socially engaged is important for managing symptoms. Being social can also act as a preventative measure, reducing the risks of experiencing mood swings. Having people to turn to during a difficult time helps to manage bipolar disorder, but so does having a generally social lifestyle. It is important to engage with people for fun, for doing activities, but also specifically for bipolar support. Support groups can be a great way to socialize and to share experiences.
Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices
In addition to treatment, social support, routine, and mood trigger monitoring, engaging in self-care and having a healthy lifestyle helps to make living with bipolar disorder easier. Staying well in all aspects of life helps to stabilize moods. This includes eating a nutritious and healthy diet, getting enough sleep every night, getting regular exercise, and limiting or completely avoiding alcohol and drugs.
Good self-care also includes stress management. While triggers for bipolar episodes vary by person, stress is a common trigger for nearly everyone. It may be necessary to make changes, like working less or giving up some responsibilities, to limit stress. Learning and using relaxation techniques and coping strategies is also helpful.
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Helping Someone with Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar relationships can be challenging at times. A good way to help a family member or partner who struggles with bipolar disorder is to learn more about the condition. Family psychoeducation is a strategy that teaches loved ones about bipolar disorder and healthy ways to interact with and support someone with this mental illness.
It is important to encourage treatment and to help a loved one with bipolar. Family members can also assist with the strategies the patient will use after treatment, to manage moods. This includes watching for early warning signs of depressive or manic episodes, helping to mitigate stress, and supporting and encouraging social engagement.
Life with bipolar disorder isn’t always easy. If you or someone you care about is struggling with this mental illness, it is important to get professional treatment. Take treatment seriously and stick with it for the long-term to learn the skills and strategies that will help you or your loved one live better with bipolar disorder.