Living with Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar Disorder is a life-altering condition that cannot be ignored or wished away. Treatment is vital to overcoming the highs of bipolar mania and the lows of bipolar depression, but with time and great effort the bipolar sufferer can restore their emotional equilibrium and return to a normal, active lifestyle.
Facing the Challenges
For men and women diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the road back to good health can be long and frustrating. False diagnoses and false recoveries are common, and it can take years to find the right combination of bipolar disorder medications plus therapy to restore a person’s ability to control their own emotional states.
Because bipolar symptoms unfold in stages, or in a cyclical fashion, living with bipolar disorder means different things at different times. Bipolar depression is a distinct mood as is bipolar mania, and the coping skills required to transcend bipolar will vary according to the type of mood being experienced.
Managing bipolar is challenging. But with a coordinated plan of action, created in partnership with trained mental health professionals and supported by family members and peers in bipolar support groups, long-term recovery is not only possible, but highly likely.
The Types and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is not a unitary condition. Its intensity, characteristics and effects on daily living differ between individuals.
To capture this diversity, mental health experts have created five bipolar classifications:
- Bipolar disorder I. Episodes of bipolar depression and mania tend to be severe and highly disturbing, and bipolar I cannot be diagnosed unless it produces at least one episode of mania severe enough to require hospitalization. Bipolar I is the most serious form of the disorder and the most likely to produce a medical emergency.
- Bipolar II. Serious depression alternates with mild mania, known as hypomania. Bipolar disorder was once referred to as manic depression, and with its closeness to clinical depression bipolar II was largely responsible for this designation.
- Cyclothymic disorder. Mild depression and hypomania must have been present for up to two years for this version of bipolar disorder to be diagnosed.
- Rapid cycling disorder. Diagnosis follows four or more distinct episodes of mania/hypomania and depression over a 12-month period.
- Bipolar disorder, not otherwise specified. Depression symptoms and mania symptoms are disruptive but do not follow any clear, distinct pattern.
As a type of mood disorder, bipolar disorder produces symptoms that are disconnected from real-life events and experiences. Those symptoms include:
|Bipolar Depression||Bipolar Mania (or Hypomania)|
Lethargy, a lack of energy
Inability to start and/or finish tasks
Social withdrawal and isolation
Lack of focus and concentration
Poor eating habits
Insomnia, or sleeping at unusual times
Chronic anxiety and worry
Thoughts of suicide
Inability to sleep or relax
Irritability, a quick temper
Racing (and often unconnected) thoughts
Short attention span
Delusions of grandeur, excessively high self-esteem
Impulsive and sometimes risky behavior
People often ask, is bipolar a disability, and when bipolar symptoms of either type are strong and uncontrollable it most certainly is.
Managing bipolar depression means more than just taking bipolar meds to make these symptoms go away. Sufferers must learn to recognize bipolar symptoms in their early stages, so they can ask for help from mental health professionals or loved ones before the situation escalates.
While bipolar disorder generally produces distinct mood states, during mixed episodes sufferers may experience an unpredictable conglomeration of bipolar symptoms consistent with both depression and mania. This is yet another challenge that individuals with bipolar disorder must learn to manage, and it is a sign of how much chaos the condition can cause if treatment is inadequate or not provided at all.
It is important to note that bipolar disorder sufferers do experience normal emotional states, times where depressive and manic symptoms are not in evidence. These respites should not bring false hope, however, since bipolar symptoms will eventually manifest again, unless they are relieved by treatment.
The Primacy of Bipolar Depression
Out of all forms of mental illness, bipolar disorder most closely resembles major depression. Except for mixed episodes, where the symptomatic profile is complex, the symptoms of bipolar depression are nearly identical to those of clinical depression, which leads to frequent misdiagnosis. Periods of depression tends to be experienced more often by most bipolar sufferers, which complicates diagnosis even further and explains why bipolar used to be called manic depression.
It can be shocking, and discouraging, for people diagnosed with clinical depression to suddenly experience a serious bout of mania. If they are being treated with antidepressants such an episode may come quickly, since antidepressants can actually trigger manic symptoms in people suffering from bipolar disorder.
Depression is the dominant disabling aspect of bipolar disorder, even though manic episodes can require hospitalization if the symptoms are extreme and accompanied by delusions or hallucinations. Nevertheless, in general mania (and hypomania) produces less disabling and frightening symptoms.
Tips for Coping with Bipolar Disorder
Every individual with bipolar disorder can benefit from treatment, under care plans created in cooperation with mental health professionals and family members who are willing to help in any way they can. This will likely include a stay in a residential treatment center during times of high stress and suffering, and when symptoms have gone untreated for a long time.
An organized treatment program is beneficial, but it is not the whole story. People who take responsibility for their own wellness do better managing bipolar disorder than those who rely solely on the experts to “cure” them.
For bipolar disorder sufferers self-care is essential, and here is some advice for people who are ready to take command of their own healing process:
- Become an expert on bipolar disorder. This is a good way for bipolar sufferers to monitor their own progress and stay on guard for signs of relapse.
- Practice mind-body techniques that help induce calm and reduce stress. Possibilities include meditation, yoga, acupuncture, Tai Chi, massage therapy, equine therapy, adventure therapy, etc.
- Cultivate active social relationships. Family members and friends can offer practical assistance to a person recovering from bipolar disorder, but they are also an excellent antidote to depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
- Make constructive changes in lifestyle. Regular exercise and proper nutrition, along with consistent and adequate sleep, promote wellness and physical, emotional and psychological stability. Eliminating substances like caffeine, sugar, and alcohol will help as well.
- Pursue favored hobbies and other enjoyable activities. These practices give sufferers a reason to stay active and to get out of the house, and in doing so they help restore psychological health.
Treatment is essential to recovery from bipolar disorder, but embracing a more proactive approach to living is a vital aspect of a lasting recovery.
Treatment and Long-Term Prognosis
Living with bipolar disorder requires acceptance of the challenges the condition creates. That means getting treatment and staying in a comprehensive recovery program until produces lasting results.
Bipolar disorder is a life-altering condition, and consequently its treatment must also be life-altering. The components of a well-planned treatment program for bipolar disorder include:
- Psychotherapy. Individual, group, and family sessions will all likely be arranged, to put the bipolar sufferer in a variety of contexts where the focus is on healing and learning to cope.
- Medication. A combination of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotic drugs may be administered. Extensive trial-and-error and dose adjustment is usually required with bipolar disorder medications before an ideal formula can be found.
- Education and life skills classes. Mental health professionals will teach bipolar sufferers about the ins and outs of bipolar depression and mania, and work with them to develop coping strategies that will make managing bipolar less difficult.
- Complementary therapies. Activities like biofeedback and meditation are often introduced during formal treatment, and they have helped an untold number of people with mental illness improve their health.
- Bipolar support groups. Peer support groups are a marvelous source of insights and inspiration for bipolar sufferers who need to know they are not alone.
While outpatient treatment programs will help bipolar sufferers find relief over the long term, it is usually a good idea to begin a new bipolar treatment plan with a 30-60 day stay in a residential treatment facility that specifically caters to individuals with mental health issues. Psychotherapy and other forms of intervention make their greatest impact in the early stages of recovery, and their effectiveness is amplified when they are offered in an environment where 24-hour support is available and full-time care services are provided.
Residential treatment is especially recommended if a dual diagnosis has been made, since the bipolar sufferer will need intensive services and personalized attention to overcome bipolar plus a substance abuse disorder or co-occurring mental health problem. People with bipolar I may also benefit greatly from time in a rehabilitation facility, suffering as they do from the most powerful and debilitating form of the disorder.
Fortunately, treatment for bipolar disorder is highly effective, if patients are diligent and dedicated and approach their recovery with a positive attitude.