7 Ways to Help Your Loved One Suffering From Both Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety

Bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder often co-occur. If you care for someone with both of these conditions, you know how much they struggle. The course of each illness is generally worse, and the recovery plan is more complicated, with this comorbidity. There are several things you can do to support your loved one, starting with urging mental health care and continuing with post-care lifestyle changes and habits.

Either mental illness alone is a challenge to live with every day. Your loved one with both bipolar disorder and anxiety will struggle to stabilize their moods and manage worry and nervousness.

Encouraging professional help is the most important thing you can do to help them, but there are other strategies and tools you can use in addition to manage these conditions.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes mood swings ranging from mania to depression. Mania is a period of high emotions, high energy, increased activity, impulsivity, agitation, and euphoria. Depression is a low mood, characterized by apathy, fatigue, loss of interest in normal activities, difficulty concentrating, and feelings of guilt and sadness.

Anxiety disorder causes intense worry, nervousness, restlessness, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and physical symptoms. There are several types of anxiety disorder:

  • Generalized anxiety causes symptoms in response to any life situation, not something specific.
  • Social anxiety is specific to social situations.
  • Phobias cause anxiety and fear in response to specific things.
  • Panic disorder triggers extreme periods of anxiety, known as panic attacks.
  • Agoraphobia is anxiety related to specific places or situations.
  • Other forms of anxiety may be caused by substance abuse or a medical condition.

Anxiety together with depression is a common mental health comorbidity, so it’s not surprising that anxiety also often co-occurs with bipolar disorder. Comorbidity is very common with bipolar disorder. Some studies have found bipolar comorbidity to be as high as 95 percent. Most common is anxiety disorder and substance use disorders. More than 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder will also have anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Unfortunately, the prognosis is worse when anxiety co-occurs with bipolar disorder. The comorbidity complicates care. Anxiety worsens bipolar symptoms, and it can also amplify the symptoms of any other co-occurring conditions. There is also a higher incidence of suicide and substance abuse in people with both disorders.

While the prognosis seems grim, this doesn’t mean that someone with comorbid bipolar and anxiety cannot find lasting relief. Getting professional help for both conditions is the most important factor. As the loved one of someone struggling in this way, there are many things you can do to help and support them.

1. Push for Ongoing, Intensive Care.

Bipolar disorder alone is difficult to treat and manage. With anxiety disorder and a more complicated prognosis, the recovery plan becomes even more important. If you know someone struggling with both conditions, do all you can to convince them to get help.

For many people with both of these conditions, a few therapy sessions a week will not be adequate. Push for more intensive care. A month or two in a residential facility is a great way to lay a strong foundation for making positive changes.

In residential care, your loved one will have distraction-free time to devote to learning how to live with these conditions. A residential facility is also often better equipped to treat comorbid conditions. Treating both at the same time is essential.

One of the big challenges is finding the best medication. Co-occurring anxiety reduces the efficacy of traditional bipolar medications. Your loved one needs a team of professionals to help them find the best combinations. And, your loved one needs time in a safe place to try different strategies.

2. Get Involved in The Recovery Plan.

Mental illness is not isolated in the person with the diagnosis. It affects everyone in their lives, especially those who are closest. An important way to support someone in recovery is to be actively involved. Look for mental health facilities that encourage families to join in specific events or therapy sessions.

You should be able to participate in family or relationship therapy. This will help you learn how to better support your loved one and communicate with them more effectively. Support groups are also common in care and can be helpful for you.

3. Cut Out Substances Together.

Anxiety and bipolar disorder increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder. Your loved one may reach for alcohol, for instance, as a way to cope with difficult emotions. It’s not a healthy coping mechanism, and it can lead to more problems in the long run.

Drugs and alcohol are obviously problematic, but also help your loved one cut out nicotine and caffeine. If they smoke or drink coffee or energy drinks, cutting back can help, especially with anxiety. Support your loved one by making healthier choices together. Doing so will make it easier for both of you.

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4. Develop Healthier Habits Together.

Eliminating things like caffeine, smoking, and alcohol is a big step in supporting symptom management. Also important is developing positive healthy habits. This is something else you can do together to support each other and make it easier. Focus on these habits that promote better symptoms control and more stable moods:

  • Regular exercise
  • Spending time outdoors
  • A healthy diet
  • A stable sleep routine

Healthy habits are not a substitute for professional help, but they do support symptom management. The better your loved one feels physically, the easier it will be to stick with the recovery process and control moods and anxiety.

5. Create a Routine and Stick With It.

Routine is helpful for anyone with bipolar disorder. A study of adults undergoing professional care for bipolar disorder showed good results for routine. Those who created daily routines had longer periods between manic and depressive episode onset than those who did not.

Help your loved one establish a routine for each day, beginning with a set time to go to bed and get up. Plan meals for the same time each day, set aside a block of time for work and chores, and add in a time for exercise and fun activities.

6. Identify Mood and Worry Triggers.

With a good mental health care plan, your loved one should learn how to identify the things that trigger mood shifts and anxiety. Even so, it is challenging to notice these things in yourself. You can be useful by observing your loved one over time and figuring out what it is that triggers them.

They may not see, for instance, that someone knocking on the door to drop off a package is a trigger for anxiety. They may not recognize that a certain person at work makes them anxious. Support their greater self-awareness by making your own observations. Together you can learn more about their triggers and how to manage or avoid them.

7. Be a Patient Listener.

Learning to manage more than one mental health condition requires patience, and not just for the person experiencing them. Your loved one needs you to be patient, too. There will be times when you feel frustrated and annoyed. You may want to walk away or give up at times.

Listening to your loved one with patience and without judgment is helpful to them. You can’t cure them or come up with all the answers, but you can listen. Often that’s all someone who is struggling needs: to know that someone is listening and cares.

When listening to your loved one, do so actively. Pay attention and repeat back some of the things they say, so they know you’re listening. Be patient even when you feel they are being irrational. Don’t get into arguments. Remain calm and direct the conversation to topics that cause them less distress and worry.

Do your best to get your loved one into professional help for both bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. Addressing both is essential to managing symptoms over the long-term. Once they have started care, there are many more things you can continue to do to support their wellness. Most important is to be there for them as someone who cares.