Mood App Helps People with Bipolar Disorder Achieve Balance and Stay On Track

People with bipolar disorder often struggle to identify the beginnings of a manic episode, owing in part to the gradual nature of mood-switching. While manual mood tracking methods can have great benefits, they also come with real limitations. Now, a new app by SANE Australia is promising a new way of detecting mania in its early stages, potentially protecting you from harm and helping you get to the root of your bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is perhaps one of the most storied mental health disorders in existence, simultaneously romanticized and stigmatized. “You know, Tolstoy had bipolar disorder,” my mom likes to tell me, as if bipolar disorder is a kind of exclusive club, filled with potential for genius. Neither of us really knows if Tolstoy had bipolar disorder, but it is a narrative that brings her comfort and lets her find a sense of possibility within my illness. The stories we tell about bipolar disorder reveal our ideals, our fears, our misinformation, our desire to find the silver lining. But perhaps the most powerful and dangerous story of all is the one we so often tell ourselves: that we are fine.

For people who have struggled with bipolar disorder, “fine” is an elusive and wonderful place to be, the place we seek with every pill we swallow and every therapy appointment we attend. It can be so wildly appealing that we push and explain away the signs that we are wrong to help us enjoy the illusion and finally reap the rewards of our hard work. And “fine” is not a purely selfish pursuit; when we are fine, those we love don’t have to worry. When we are fine, we can work. When we are fine, we can be relied upon. There’s a lot riding on us being fine.

Believing we are fine when we are not is, of course, dangerous. Ultimately, it does not help us or those we love, but only increases harm. Now, a new mood tracking app from SANE Australia is using technology to provide objective information that cuts through illusion to potentially save lives.

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The Gradual Ascent

One of the reasons it can be easy to believe we are fine is the nature of bipolar disorder itself. Unlike what many imagine, people with the disorder aren’t constantly stuck inside a mood episode; you can go for weeks, months, even years without entering into a manic, depressive or hypomanic state. You can indeed be fine. Further, mood episodes aren’t typically sudden abrupt shifts, as if someone turned on a light switch. Instead, they are slow ascents and descents on slopes so gradual as to be virtually imperceptible day by day. By the time we recognize what is happening, we are often far into the midst of an episode that disrupts our ability to function and may even put us in danger.

While all mood episodes may cause great distress, the manic episodes inherent to bipolar disorder are perhaps the most extreme and potentially harmful states in which to enter. As such, guarding against mania is a primary objective in the treatment of bipolar disorder. However, many people receive incomplete treatment that does not fully address all aspects of your bipolar disorder, increasing the likelihood of relapse and the emergence of mania. At other times, even high-quality treatment that has previously produced stability gradually becomes less successful in staving off mood switching; for reasons not fully understood, our responses to treatment can change over time, leaving us vulnerable to experiencing manic episodes even after significant periods of stability.

But how do you know when mania begins? Is the increased energy you feel the beginnings of a manic episode, or is your exercise program finally paying off? Is your euphoria genuine, or disordered? Is your increased interest in sex a healthy desire or a telltale sign that you are about to enter into a state of mania? Are you spending that money to treat yourself, or because you can’t control yourself? At what point does benign mood elevation, energy, and irritation end and illness begin? Where do you draw the line?

The Value and Limitations of Manual Mood Tracking

Many people with bipolar disorder participate in mood tracking as an ongoing way to manage their illness and identify potential mood switching, even when they have achieved a stable state. By recording the details of your daily emotions and behaviors, the hope is that you or your physician can catch mania early and immediately modify treatment to address your symptoms while they remain relatively benign. This is important not only to prevent severe distress in the immediate term, but to protect the brain from the damage produced by full-blown mania.

However, mood tracking can be difficult to implement. While a variety of worksheets and apps have been developed to simplify the process, they still rely on you taking time out of your day to manually track. They also require honest self-evaluation, which can be difficult both because the desire to be “fine” is so strong and because mood episodes can interfere with your self-awareness and ability to act in your own best interest. Further, manual mood tracking requires regular oversight by your physician in order to use it for meaningful management; while it is certainly possible to analyze your chart yourself and take appropriate action, independently taking on full responsibility for identifying mood shifts while in a disordered state is a big burden to bear.

The SANE Bipolar App

SANE Australia, a national mental health organization, recognized the limitations of manual mood tracking and decided to do something different. In partnership with the University of NSW Department of Psychiatry and Isobar, SANE has developed an app that seeks to identify the onset of mania “by monitoring the way a person living with bipolar disorder interacts with their digital devices, including mobile phone.” Without requiring the user to self-report, the app “continuously maps a person’s everyday interactions with technology to identify changes to their regular behavior.” If potential mania is detected, a notification is then sent to a trusted person of your choosing, such as a family member or healthcare provider, alerting them to your emotional state.

According to Professor Philip Mitchel, Head of Psychiatry at the University of NSW, this novel use of technology in the management of bipolar disorder is an important step forward. “All too often mania is only detected when it’s too late to take preventative action and this can have terrible impacts for not only the individual, but those close to them,” he says. By facilitating early intervention, this app can help you protect yourself from the risks of severe manic episodes.

But getting you help isn’t the only benefit of the app; by giving your loved one objective information about your condition, they can understand what is happening to you without having to rely on your own self-reporting. Unfortunately, telling those we love that we need help is often one of the greatest struggles we face; we do not want to trouble or worry them so we work hard to maintain the illusion that we’re okay. But in reality, our mania is already affecting them. “When my husband is in a period of mania, I become confused and disheartened, unsure of the man I will wake up next to,” says Ash Millar, whose husband Jesse struggles with bipolar I disorder. “It’s an immensely stressful time for me as I set aside my own needs and find myself feeling guilty as it becomes increasingly difficult to support his mental illness.” The notifications provided by the SANE Australia app can alert your loved ones to the need to get their own support as you enter into a manic state.

Getting to the Root of Bipolar Disorder

If you are experiencing recurring manic episodes even after receiving treatment, it is likely that more comprehensive care is necessary. Residential mental health treatment offers an immersive therapeutic environment in which you can fully devote yourself to your healing, free from the stressors of everyday life. In a warm, intimate setting, you are able to explore the roots of your suffering and create effective strategies for managing your illness in both the short and long term. Using a range of integrative therapies, expert clinicians engage you in multiple modes of healing simultaneously to ensure holistic recovery. At the same time, your whole family will receive the support you need to resolve interpersonal conflict, create the space to honestly examine the impact of your illness, and develop deeper, more harmonious relationships. With the help of a high-quality mental health treatment program, you can start a new story, one in which your illness no longer controls you and you are able to let your full potential flourish.

Bridges to Recovery is a residential treatment center for bipolar disorder and other mental health disorders. Contact us for more information about our world-class program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting stability.
Image Source: Unsplash user Luke Porter