The Signs and Triggers of a Bipolar Relapse—What Can You Do?

As complex and overwhelming as bipolar disorder can be, it’s possible to develop a well-rounded plan to manage the ups and downs so they aren’t so debilitating. If you are able to recognize the early warning signs before a bipolar relapse, you may be able to minimize its impact. Likewise, you can keep an eye out for triggers and, most importantly, stick to a comprehensive treatment plan for the best possible outcomes.

First of all, it’s important to know that a bipolar relapse does not mean that someone has done something wrong or messed up. Bipolar disorder is an overwhelming illness, and it can be unpredictable and difficult to manage. A person who suffers from bipolar disorder needs reliable support, a comprehensive treatment plan, and a way to stay on top of that treatment. But, even still, relapse happens.

It’s hard to characterize a relapse of bipolar disorder in general terms because it can look and feel different for everyone. But there are ways you can look out for signs of a bipolar relapse and also manage triggers to better prevent distress. In fact, treatment serves to empower people with bipolar disorder to develop greater awareness of their transitional symptoms, especially with a host of social and professional support and effective options for therapeutic recovery.

What Are the Signs of a Bipolar Relapse?

As we have discussed, the mental and emotional experience of bipolar disorder can be challenging and even destabilizing. In fact, in order to observe an oncoming bipolar relapse, it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for behavioral signs rather than telling thoughts and feelings. This is because behavioral signs of a bipolar relapse are tangible and easier to observe. Signs of a hypomanic episode, on the other hand, may actually lead one to believe the opposite—that they are doing well and feeling altogether better. Whereas a depressive episode can be so overwhelming, and the emotional experience can feel completely defeating. But, again, the specific nature of these disordered mood experiences are different for everyone.

When we look at behaviors, they tend to be representative of the disordered thoughts and feelings. But they are more concrete, more measurable. By developing mindfulness and empowered perspective people living with bipolar disorder do not need to be completely blindsided by a relapse. When someone spots a warning sign, they can turn to their treatment toolbox and reach for a coping strategy or for the professional support that can ease their distress and perhaps prevent an extreme mood episode.

The signs that we will be looking for are called “prodromal”—rather than “syndromal,” which refers to the symptoms of the bipolar mood episode itself. So, during the prodromal phase, you can look for the following early warning signs.

Early Signs of Bipolar Depression

  • Procrastination or failure to complete things—even simple daily tasks—likely due to a lack of motivation
  • Expressing more negative opinions and sentiments
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Withdrawal from socialization and a tendency toward isolation
  • Withdrawal from things and activities a person is normally interested in
  • Visibly diminished energy; slower actions, movements, and speech
  • The tendency to sleep more than usual
  • Easily distracted, unable to concentrate, or more often forgetting things

Early Signs of Bipolar Mania

  • A visible resurgence of energy and euphoria that don’t seem like they are a direct reflection of the events and conditions around them
  • Quicker speech that seems to flow continuously and from various directions
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • An obvious boost in one’s self-confidence—evident in their speech or their actions
  • A short attention span; easily distracted
  • Emotional reactions that seem out of proportion with the real-world events and experiences
  • The tendency to sleep less than usual
  • Behaviors that seem impulsive or risky
  • Psychotic symptoms, such as delusional thinking or hallucinations

Because the signs and symptoms are unique to each person, it’s important to measure changes in behavior with the person’s own average tendencies rather than with a seemingly objective baseline.

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Managing Bipolar Disorder, Treatment, and Triggers to Prevent Relapse

It’s important to also be aware of the other side of bipolar transitions: the triggers that can provoke mood episodes. With professional guidance, an individual can get to know the range of their particular triggers. But some common triggering situations include:

  • A lack of adequate sleep
  • Sedentary habits
  • Stress from any number of responsibilities, events, or relationships
  • A lack of daily routine
  • A lack of regular self-care
  • Social isolation
  • The transitions of seasons
  • The use of substances
  • Specific thought patterns
  • Extreme sensory inputs, such as bright lights or powerful noises or crowds

As part of a comprehensive treatment program, a person develops coping mechanisms for when their triggers arise. Among other strategies, their care plan may include medications, good sleep hygiene, wholesome nutrition, supportive relationships and groups, and daily routines, including exercise and other positive activities. With solid connections to clinicians, family, and friends, they also have others who can be alert to potential triggers or changes in their behavior that may signal an oncoming mood episode.

One of the most likely reasons that someone experiences a bipolar disorder relapse is that their treatment plan is interrupted. They might stop taking their medications—perhaps even because an approaching hypomanic episode leaves them feeling on top of the world or because an approaching depressive episode has them feeling defeated and hopeless. They might miss therapy appointments, which can compromise their ability to cope, as well as their ability to see warning signs clearly. As such, the most important safeguard against bipolar relapse is to have a solid, familiar, well-supported program of treatment and care—and to adhere to the therapeutic paths and to maintain the invaluable system of support. No one has to endure bipolar disorder on their own. And their possibilities for optimal quality of life are infinitely better with the right help from knowledgeable experts.

BrightQuest offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders. We also treat co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start your journey toward recovery.