Bipolar disorder simply put is a mood disorder. A person with bipolar disorder experiences various moods at extreme ends of the spectrum. Highs and lows, ever-changing and many times without warning. A person experiencing normal shifts in moods reacts in a fairly logical and reasonable way to various types of situations, stimuli and people. If something negative happens they will become upset or sad, if the sadness is prolonged or the event is traumatic enough, they may become temporarily depressed, which is a normal reaction. If a person’s boss chews them out over something that wasn’t their fault, they would be angry, again normal. If they get a bonus at work or a good tax return they may buy something they’ve wanted for a while as a treat, also normal.
In bipolar disorder, a person experiences moods like sadness, depression, anger, irritation and exhilaration (among others) often without anything happening to cause them to feel that way or, if there is a cause the emotional response is out of proportion to the cause. More than that, these emotions are often amplified beyond the norm : sadness can quickly become depression, this depression can often be long-term, lasting for months and can be so consuming that the individual can’t find the will to eat or get out of bed; irritation and anger can become deeply entangled causing the bipolar person to strike out at others verbally, perhaps saying things they wouldn’t normally say or perhaps breaking and throwing things and even seeking out confrontation with others, including total strangers. A person with bipolar disorder often engages in irresponsible and risky behavior, like spending money they don’t have, sometimes putting themselves or their families in debt, driving recklessly or engaging in uncharacteristic and dangerous sexual behavior. These shifts in mood and behavior can occur quickly, some people with bipolar disorder experience these changes in mood weekly, daily and even by the hour, this is called cycling. There are various kinds of bipolar disorder and the severity of the symptoms vary by the kind of bipolar disorder a person has.
Some basic symptoms of bipolar disorder are:
Mania – this can be euphoric highs where a person’s judgment is impaired, they may experience thoughts that feel like they are coming very fast and they can’t catch it all. Mania can also feel like extreme irritability and anxiety that can turn into panic. All of these symptoms can result in uncharacteristic and irresponsible behavior.
Depression – This is not short-term sadness, it is deep and is usually accompanied by feelings of worthlessness, a lack of interest in things the person normally enjoys doing, not taking care of themselves physically like, bathing or changing clothes or combing their hair and thinking about death and wanting to die, and possibly making plans to carry out those thoughts.
Psychosis – this basically means that a person’s view of reality is faulty. A person with bipolar disorder who is experiencing psychosis may hear things that aren’t there and see things that aren’t real, but to that person it seems very real. They may also think things about themselves that aren’t true for example, they may be convinced that they have special powers and abilities.
A person with bipolar disorder can experience various degrees of these symptoms at different times or they may have many of these symptoms at the same time for example, they may experience extreme anxiety and agitation but also be extremely depressed at the same time. When a person with bipolar disorder experiences both symptoms of mania and depression at the same time it’s called a mixed state.
Many people with bipolar disorder (or those who have it but don’t realize it) try to treat the symptoms themselves by drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs, this is called self-medicating, and while this may seem to briefly dull the emotional pain, anxiety and confusion a person is feeling, it doesn’t really help the person in a meaningful or healthy way. Bipolar disorder is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain and misusing alcohol or illegal drugs won’t help to restore that balance. There are treatments available and working closely with a psychiatrist ( a medical doctor who treats mental illness), a person with bipolar disorder can explore many options.
Some drug treatments include:
– Anti- seizure medication
– Anti- psychotic medication
– medication to aid sleep
There are other parts to treatment including, talking to someone who will listen and who has experience helping people with bipolar disorder to deal with it, like a therapist. Getting exercise is also important for two big reasons, it helps to have a routine of exercise to stay active and exercise helps to offset one of the most common side effects of bipolar medication: weight gain.
A person with bipolar disorder needs to realize that it may take time, trial and error, and trying different combinations of medications to find what works for them. Some medications may take weeks to take effect, or they may work for a while and then stop, or perhaps a different dosage may be needed. It takes patience and that’s a very hard thing to have when a person is suffering. But, the good news is that there are many treatments available and they can work. New medications are approved all the time and that opens up many possibilities. There is also a large community of people with bipolar disorder out there who help each other. Those suffering from bipolar disorder don’t have to go through it alone.