My Mental Tug-of-War: Living With Both Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that causes moods to cycle between mania and depression. Anxiety disorder is a common mental illness that triggers worry, tension, and nervousness. Anxiety is the most common diagnosis that co-occurs with bipolar. It can make mood swings worse, more frequent, and even increase the risk for suicidal thoughts and substance abuse. Getting a complete diagnosis and treatment for co-occurring disorders is essential for managing these two illnesses.
Living with bipolar disorder and anxiety has genuinely felt like a tug-of-war at times. I go between feeling elated and unstoppable during mania to despair and listlessness during depression, only to struggle with worry and stress as well.
I finally stopped the tug-of-war with good treatment.
My conditions will never truly go away, but with experts on my side I learned how to manage them better. I went from barely functioning to embracing and enjoying life again.
I Always Struggled With Anxiety
My parents always described me as a nervous kid. I worried more than any normal kid should, about things like going to birthday parties and my little brother getting sick. It got worse as I got older. I was a good student and got As, but I constantly stressed over grades. I made myself sick with worry before tests.
I never got a formal diagnosis of anxiety disorder, but my doctor did recommend things like meditation for kids and regular exercise to help me relax. I only realized as an adult that I probably had generalized anxiety disorder for most of my life. It wasn’t debilitating, though—not until I started to have other mental health issues.
My Bipolar Diagnosis
I started feeling depressed as early as high school. Looking back on it now, I think I also had some manic episodes. To my parents—and to me too, I guess—these mood swings seemed like exaggerated, but still normal, teenage antics.
Eventually my mom took me to my pediatrician to talk about depression and I went on an antidepressant. It helped a little, but my parents never considered getting me therapy and I continued to struggle.
By the time I got to college, I took myself to therapy. I had stopped taking the antidepressant because of the weight gain, and I was having a tough time. I went through these phases of staying up all night for days, thinking I was writing an amazing paper, only to get a failing grade on it or to fail a test. I had major anxiety over my grades, and every time I was back in a “normal” mood I worked hard to get them back up.
I managed to graduate but couldn’t manage normal relationships. I worked but also got fired from a few jobs. I felt like I was just hanging on. I went to a new doctor and got a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. It was eye-opening. Everything suddenly made sense, and in a way, it was a relief.
The Difficulties of Having Both Bipolar and Anxiety Disorders
It’s much easier to see the complications anxiety caused my bipolar disorder now that I’ve gone through treatment and am much more stable. While I was going through it without adequate treatment, everything just felt like a struggle. These are some of the issues I had, which I now know resulted from having both of these conditions:
- My anxiety got worse over time. No matter how much I tried to meditate and use things like a warm bath to relax, I was tense a lot of the time. I even started having panic attacks. During the first one, I thought I was dying.
- Manic episodes got significantly worse, too. I always had a hard time sleeping, and I used to give into it and stay up all night. Knowing my diagnosis and that I was experiencing mania, I took steps to try to sleep, but with each new manic episode I just couldn’t sleep more than an hour a night for days at a time.
- Mood swings started coming more frequently. From high school into college they occurred more often. By the time I barely graduated, it was even worse. Everything just got increasingly worse. I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath between feeling manic, anxious, and then depressed again.
- I started drinking more as a way to cope. I found that when anxiety was building, a couple of drinks kept the sensation at bay. Unfortunately, that meant that I was eventually drinking every night of the week.
- Therapy had helped me a little, but eventually it didn’t help at all. I could not manage the anxiety and mood swings, even with the tools my therapist had given me that were useful in the past.
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Learning More About My Conditions
Education has been a huge help to me. When I spiraled into a manic episode or down into depression, I felt helpless and a little crazy. Was this normal? Was there something wrong with me? My anxiety soared during these times because I knew something wasn’t right.
Even after I started on medication and weekly therapy for mania and depression, I couldn’t shake the anxiety. I didn’t feel like anything was helping with any of my issues. I felt like a failure.
Part of treatment included learning about my diagnoses, and it was so helpful. Not only did I learn what bipolar disorder is, but I found out that anxiety disorder commonly co-occurs with it. I also found out that anxiety disorder can worsen my symptoms and make treating bipolar more complicated.
This helped me understand that I wasn’t failing at treatment. I had anxiety, and it was interfering with my ability to manage bipolar episodes and symptoms. This was when I decided I needed more intensive treatment. Despite the best efforts of the psychiatrist I was seeing, I just had to focus more on the complicated nature of anxiety intertwining with bipolar episodes.
What Residential Treatment Was Like
Choosing residential treatment, I truly believe, saved my life. It was my brother who helped push me in that direction. He saw that I wasn’t functioning, especially after I got fired from a third job. I asked him for money for rent, and he suggested I needed some more thorough treatment.
I knew he was right and had known it for some time. I had resisted the idea of going to a treatment center for a lot of reasons, but I finally felt like I had no other choice. One of the first things the staff did for me in treatment was confirm my two diagnoses and sort out my medication.
I found out how complicated it is to treat bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder with the right medication. I had been using antidepressants off and on for years, but it turns out that that worsened my mood swings. We switched to mood stabilizers and it made a huge difference.
My personal therapist also helped me learn more about my mental health conditions and how they interact. Being aware of how one can trigger and worsen the other has been powerful. I also worked in small groups with other residents. I learned so much from them as we supported each other.
What really surprised me about treatment is that it was not simply about therapy and medication. The staff really went beyond traditional methods and helped me learn to manage anxiety with exercise, meditation, yoga, good sleep habits, and a healthier diet. It’s made a world of difference. I even learned to use creative therapies to manage stress and process my emotions. I now draw nearly every day as an outlet.
My journey with bipolar disorder and anxiety has been far from easy. What really helped me was recognizing my diagnoses, learning how they interact, and focusing on my treatment for a set period of time. Residential care didn’t cure me, but it finally gave me the tools I needed to go home and function in my life. I no longer live as a slave to my moods. I’m thriving for the first time in years.