Depressed woman with friends and therapist.

Living With Bipolar Disorder

All of us have good days and bad days – days when we’re ready to take on the world and days we would rather stay in bed under the covers.

With the right treatment plan, self-management techniques and a support system in place, you can live a full and healthy life with bipolar disorder.

But living with bipolar disorder is more than just the typical good day versus bad day we all experience from time to time. Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, activity levels and concentration, and living with it can make it difficult to function and carry out day-to-day tasks.

However, similar to other mental health conditions, bipolar disorder is a treatable medical condition. Learn more about bipolar disorder and its symptoms, as well as treatments and resources available to support you or your loved ones.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder involves clear changes in mood, energy and activity levels. These moods range from periods of extremely “up,” elated or energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very “down,” sad or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes). Less severe manic periods are known as hypomanic episodes.

Symptoms of manic or hypomanic episodes can include:

  • Extreme energy
  • Extreme increases in mood, self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Unusual talkativeness
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Difficulty turning off racing thoughts
  • Irritability and distractibility

Symptoms of depressive episodes can include:

  • Depressed mood, feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Changes in appetite that may result in weight loss or weight gain
  • Changes in sleep patterns, resulting in sleeping too much or insomnia
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in usual activities
  • Feelings of excessive guilt or worthlessness
  • Thoughts of suicide

There are three different types of bipolar disorder, which are defined in part by the severity and frequency of a person’s manic or depressive episodes and symptoms. Learn more about each type of bipolar disorder.

What Causes Bipolar Disorder?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, but several factors may be involved, including:

  • Genetics – A person’s chances of developing bipolar disorder are increased if a parent or sibling has the disorder.
  • Stress – A stressful event, such as a death in the family, an illness or financial issues, and how you’re able to cope, can lead to a manic or depressive episode.
  • Biological differences – Brain scans cannot diagnose bipolar disorder, but people with bipolar disorder appear to have subtle differences in the average size or activation of some parts of the brain.

How Is Bipolar Disorder Diagnosed?

To diagnose bipolar disorder, a health care provider may perform a physical exam, conduct an interview with you and order lab tests to help rule out other illnesses that may be causing some of your symptoms. If no other illnesses are present, your health care provider may recommend seeking support from a mental health care professional. A mental health care provider can use a diagnostic tool to assess your symptoms, their severity and impact on your life, and then diagnose the type of bipolar disorder you have.

Despite the intense mood swings, people with bipolar disorder may not recognize the symptoms they’re experiencing as a mental health issue. For example, some people may enjoy the manic episodes and cycles of being euphoric, energetic and more productive. However, if you have symptoms of mania or depression, it’s important to see your health care provider to determine what’s going on.

Once you have a diagnosis, you can begin treatment to help you manage your symptoms.

What Types of Treatments Are Available?

Mental health professional discusses prescription for patient with bipolar disorder.Although there is no cure for bipolar disorder, evidence-based treatments are available to support you. Most of the time, bipolar disorder is treated with a combination of strategies that have proven effective for most people, including:

  • Medications – This can include mood stabilizers, antipsychotic medications and antidepressants.
  • Psychotherapy – This can include different types of therapy to help you identify and change negative behaviors, improve your quality of life and learn new communication skills, including cognitive behavioral therapy, family-focused counseling and education, social skills training, and more.
  • Self-management – This includes learning more about your symptoms, recognizing early warning signs and developing different tools to help you manage them.
  • Complementary health strategies – This can include exercise, meditation and other health strategies that may support your treatment plan and overall health and wellness.

The National Institute of Mental Health details several treatment options for bipolar disorder in addition to those listed above, including light therapy and brain stimulation therapies. You can also visit the Department of Veterans Affairs Learn About Treatment page to find out more.

Left untreated, bipolar disorder can worsen and impact your life in many harmful ways, such as damaging your relationships, affecting your work performance and increasing your risk for substance misuse. Reach out to your health care provider and talk about the treatment options that may be right for you.

What Steps Can I Take to Help Manage My Bipolar Disorder?

Healthy eating and exercise.In addition to a treatment plan, there are many ways you can support your own journey with bipolar disorder. Here are some strategies that can help you prevent minor symptoms from becoming full-blown mood episodes.

  • Take your medications as directed. You may be tempted to stop treatment, especially when you’re feeling OK, but stopping your medication or reducing your dose without talking to your health care provider can cause your symptoms to worsen or return. Have open and honest conversations with your health care provider about how you’re feeling about your treatment and side effects you may be experiencing.
  • Learn as much as you can. Understanding how bipolar disorder works, what the treatment options are and what steps you can take to minimize the impact of the disorder are important first steps to managing your bipolar disorder.
  • Pay attention to warning signs. Addressing your symptoms early on can prevent episodes from getting worse. Maybe you can figure out what causes the symptoms to begin. For example, is it after a stressful day at work? Is it when you argue with a certain family member? Stay in tune with how you feel and keep track of small changes in your mood, your sleep habits or your energy level. This might allow you to control the changes before they develop into a full-blown episode.
  • Develop a toolbox to help you manage your symptoms. If you’re able to recognize your symptoms early on, it’s helpful to have a few strategies or tools in place to use right away. A toolbox may include finding a support group you can reach out to, confiding in a special person, getting extra sleep, taking time for yourself, exercising, finding a creative outlet, and more.
  • Build a support network. Having supportive people you can turn to is important to your overall health and wellness. People who can listen when you’re feeling low or people who can recognize when you need extra support are a great resource when you’re struggling to deal with your emotions. In addition, a support group, either online or in person, can help you make new connections with people who understand what you’re going through.
  • Develop healthy routines. Good sleep habits, a healthy diet and regular exercise are important for your overall health – and can also help you manage your symptoms and control your moods. Develop a daily routine that includes a set wake time and sleep time, built-in time for exercise, healthy meals, and connection with others.
  • Manage your stress levels. Knowing how to manage stress is important for people living with bipolar disorder since stress is known to lead to mood episodes. Try incorporating a relaxation technique such as meditation or yoga into your daily routine. Check out A Closer Look at Alternative Wellness Techniques for some ideas.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. Using drugs or alcohol can worsen your symptoms or make them more likely to come back. These substances can also interfere with your medications and impact your sleep.
  • Be patient. Finding the right treatment plan, as well as the self-help strategies that work for you, may take time, so be patient with yourself.

What Resources Are Available to Help?

With the right treatment plan, self-management techniques and a support system in place, you can live a full and healthy life with bipolar disorder.

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