The Effect of C-PTSD on People With Bipolar Disorder

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a more severe, chronic type of PTSD caused by prolonged traumatic experiences. It is extremely damaging and distressing and can worsen the symptoms and complications of existing bipolar disorder. Recovering from or at least managing these mental illnesses successfully requires facing past trauma. It requires professional, dedicated treatment for trauma, for C-PTSD, and bipolar disorder all at once.

Bipolar disorder is a difficult mental illness, one that often causes severe symptoms and serious dysfunction. Unfortunately, mental illnesses don’t always occur one at a time. An individual with both bipolar and a traumatic past faces multiple challenges.

C-PTSD, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder, is PTSD that results from repeated trauma. For instance, if you were subjected to abuse at the hand of a parent for years, you may develop C-PTSD as an adult. The trauma and the PTSD may contribute to, trigger, or worsen a mood disorder like bipolar. Treatment is possible, though, and it can be effective in helping you build a better life. Residential care is often best for such a difficult, complicated, and damaging set of mental health challenges.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes cycles of depression and mania. Depression causes a low mood, loss of interest in activities, fatigue, shame and guilt, sadness, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and in some cases suicidal thoughts.

Mania is a mood that is euphoric and that causes agitation and irritability, high energy, increased activity levels, impulsive decisions, less sleep, and often self-destructive behaviors. How often or severely these moods occur varies by individual.

There are no definitive causes for bipolar disorder, but you are at an increased risk for it if you have a family history. Trauma can also be a risk factor. These things don’t guarantee that you will have it, but they put you at risk for onset of bipolar disorder.

What Is C-PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental illness with a known cause: traumatic experiences. Not everyone who goes through trauma will have this condition, but it is triggered by trauma. This may include being in combat in the military, witnessing violence, being abused or assaulted, being neglected as a child, going through a natural disaster, and anything else that causes extreme distress and fear.

PSTD causes symptoms like intrusive, distressing and scary memories, nightmares, and flashbacks. It causes avoidance of anything that reminds you of the trauma. It can also make you agitated and jumpy and change how you feel about and view yourself and the world.

Mental health experts are increasingly recognizing complex PTSD. This is a variation on PTSD that results from repeated traumas. It causes similar symptoms to PTSD, which may be more severe, and also other symptoms: self-destructive behaviors, anger, depression, panic attacks, dissociation, personality and identity changes, and unexplained medical conditions or symptoms.

Co-Occurrence of C-PTSD and Bipolar Disorder

PTSD is well known to commonly co-occur with mood disorders, including bipolar disorder. Studies indicate that people with bipolar disorder are nearly 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than the general population. There is no specific measure for C-PTSD. Most patients diagnosed with PTSD also have symptoms of, or meet the full criteria for, depression or bipolar disorder.

Trauma Is the Underlying Factor

When mental illnesses co-occur, it isn’t possible to say with certainty that one caused the other or to outline exact reasons for the diagnoses. However, it is likely there are risk factors in common. These risk factors contribute to the onset of mental illness and make it more likely that an individual will get more than one diagnosis.

In the case of C-PTSD with bipolar disorder, trauma is the common contributing cause. Traumatic experiences over a long period of time do not ensure that you will develop either of these mental illnesses, but it significantly increases the risk.

Trauma’s Impact on Bipolar Symptoms

The interactions between these two conditions are complicated and impossible to fully understand. However, if you already have bipolar disorder and then go through sustained trauma and develop C-PTSD, the results are likely to be more severe bipolar symptoms.

C-PTSD causes symptoms that affect mood. These can worsen your bipolar moods and cycles, especially if left untreated. Many of the symptoms unique to C-PTSD as compared to PTSD are similar to those of bipolar disorder.

As one example, during manic episodes you may feel edgy, tense, keyed up, and even angry or irritable. C-PTSD causes similar feelings and reactions. During mania, these symptoms may become additive, making you feel even worse and leading you to act out in even more destructive ways.

Both conditions can also cause symptoms characteristic of psychosis, such as dissociation or delusions. If you have both mental illnesses, you may be more likely to experience these severe and distressing symptoms.

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C-PTSD May Worsen Complications of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder not only causes difficult moods and symptoms, it also triggers complications, like substance abuse or suicidal behaviors, that vary by individual. If you are struggling with the effects of trauma as well as bipolar disorder, you may be at a greater risk for all kinds of complications and consequences. Studies have compared people with bipolar disorder and PTSD to those with just bipolar. Those with both conditions are more likely to:

  • Have a lower quality of life
  • Experience rapid cycling, a type of bipolar disorder with more frequent mood swings
  • Make more attempts at suicide
  • Have relapses after treatment

These are just a few factors studied. It is possible that the combination of these two conditions will worsen all kinds of complications, from drug abuse to additional mental illnesses, eating disorders, unstable relationships, and physical and medical conditions.

Treat the Trauma to Treat Mental Illness

Trauma in itself is not a mental illness. It is a cause and a risk factor, though, and underlies many mental health issues. It is clearly the cause of C-PTSD, but it may also be a contributing factor to bipolar disorder, especially in those with both conditions.

Both mental illnesses can be chronic. Bipolar disorder treatment usually results in periods of recovery, but relapses are common. PTSD can often be cured over time, but C-PTSD can become chronic. An important way to minimize the symptoms of these difficult conditions is to address the underlying trauma.

If mental health professionals can help you process those terrible past experiences, you’ll be able to better manage both C-PTSD and bipolar disorder. Some important types of trauma-focused treatment include:

  • Behavioral Therapies. Trauma-focused behavioral therapies help you talk through negative beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors while making positive changes and learning new, productive ways to cope.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy. This type of therapy is useful for minimizing frightening memories and flashbacks. It involves using eye movements and recalling trauma to process it and react to it in a new way.
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy involves confronting past traumas head on but in a safe, supportive therapy environment. It sometimes involves using virtual reality technology.

Because of how complex the relationship is between PTSD and bipolar disorder, treatment often needs to be long-term. A good place to start is with residential care. This gives you a safe place to focus on treatment and to benefit from the expertise of an entire team of professionals. This comorbidity may be more than one therapist can effectively treat.

If you or someone you love has struggled with past trauma or has been diagnosed with C-PTSD, bipolar disorder, or both, getting treatment is essential. It may seem insurmountable now, but it is possible to face your past, to manage your mental illnesses, and to live better in spite of them.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental illnesses. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.