Bipolar disorder is a lifelong mental health condition that’s characterized by extreme mood swings. These mood swings include periods of deep depression and manic, high-energy periods. People with this condition also experience periods between these two extremes when they feel quite “normal,” but various factors can trigger bipolar episodes to occur. While episodes can seemingly occur of their own accord as part of the nature of this disorder, they can also be triggered by external factors like drinking or drug abuse, relationship problems, a job loss, or other stressful events.
It’s not uncommon for people with bipolar to experience relationship difficulties or financial problems, which can profoundly impact their lives. The extreme mood swing shifts, the behaviors they lead to, and the emotional upheaval can lead to a chaotic home life that loved ones may also find difficult. Once someone realizes that what they’re experiencing is, in fact, a mental health disorder, they can seek help. Fortunately, bipolar disorder can be treated and managed effectively.
What Is Bipolar Disorder and What Are Bipolar Episodes?
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness. People with the disorder experience extreme mood swings that go from severe depression to periods of euphoria. These mood swings impact the individual’s energy levels, sleep patterns, activities and behaviors, judgment, and even their ability to focus or think clearly. Often, the changes in mood are unpredictable. There are mild forms of bipolar disorder as well as more severe types when the individual suffers from symptoms that can be quite dangerous, involving suicide thoughts and attempts.
Bipolar episodes refer to the periods of dark depression or the manic, high-energy phase (mania or hypomania). These “moods” do not typically involve day-to-day changes in mood. Instead, episodes can last for several days or weeks–even months. In some instances, an extreme mood can tip into psychosis–a break from reality. This, too, may last beyond a day.
Coping Day to Day with Bipolar Disorder
A typical day for someone with bipolar disorder depends on which period they’re in. During a manic period, a person may feel extremely social, talkative, and motivated to wake up early, work, or achieve any number of tasks or projects. They can feel upbeat for weeks, but the downside is that they may spend more money than they should or engage in high-risk behaviors. They may experience a high sex drive or feel compelled to drink or use drugs.
During the depressive phase, the individual that was once so lively and energetic, may suddenly feel lethargic and hopeless. Instead of feeling social, they may prefer to be alone and isolated. It’s not uncommon to feel suicidal during this period.
The nature of the disease, particularly when unmanaged, means that these periods of mood imbalance will cycle or oscillate. The person suffering may feel like they have no control over the roller coaster that is their thoughts and emotions. This can create a profound sense of helplessness and even despair.
Understanding and Being Mindful of Triggers
A person with bipolar disorder must either cope with severe emotional distress or powerful manic urges and compulsions depending on what type of episode they’re experiencing. While an episode can occur without any obvious trigger, it’s often triggered by a stressful event. Some common triggers of bipolar episodes include:
- Not getting a proper amount of sleep
- Travel stress (coping with different time zones)
- Getting into an argument with partner, family member, friend, or colleague
- Divorce or breakup
- Seasonal changes (many people with bipolar disorder also have seasonal depression)
- Financial stress
- The death of a loved one or friend
- Alcohol or drug use
Any type of stress can trigger a bipolar episode. Unfortunately, stress can’t always be avoided. Even with the best efforts to avoid trigger situations, episodes may still occur.
Bipolar Crisis: How to Recognize It
When a person with bipolar disorder is going through either a depressive or manic phase, they may reach a crisis point that requires some type of intervention— usually medical intervention. A person with the disorder may not be able to recognize when they’re reached a crisis point and need help. A clear crisis during a depressive episode occurs when the individual begins to experience suicidal thoughts or takes steps to attempt suicide. At this point, the individual needs trained medical care. Attempting to “talk” to them yourself will be inadequate. Emergency medical help is needed to address this situation.
Similarly, a person may need emergency medical care during a manic episode. Their mania or hypomania may become so uncontrolled that they experience psychosis. They may need to be hospitalized for a period of time until their condition can be managed. If the individual begins to experience hallucinations or delusions, they need emergency medical care. They may not recognize that they do. Regardless, these crisis moments demand emergency medical help.
These crisis points can cause tremendous emotional distress for the person with bipolar. Their judgment can become extremely impaired. However, what they feel is quite “real” in the sense they are experiencing these powerful emotions or thoughts, which often means that they can’t recognize when their thoughts and feelings take a dangerous turn.
How to Help Someone with Bipolar Disorder
If your loved one is suffering with this mental illness, there are many ways you can support them. When they’re experiencing either phase, it’s important to check on them whenever you can to ensure their symptoms aren’t worsening or heading toward a crisis point. Let your loved one know they can trust you. Once they’ve been diagnosed with the illness and understand its nature, it will feel helpful for them to know they can trust someone to advise them when their moods take an extreme turn. They may feel like they can’t trust their own judgment in these situations, but knowing they can rely on yours may help alleviate some of their stress.
Next, encourage them to make all of their appointments with their mental health care providers and to continue to take any medications or keep up with other treatments prescribed. Not everyone manages their condition with medication, though it is effective for treating bipolar. Some people complement their medical therapy with a physical fitness routine, yoga, or other holistic activities that can help with stress management.
Next, help your loved one make a plan for what to do when they’re experiencing episodes. A crisis plan, in particular, is important to have in place. Know who to contact if your loved one begins to experience a crisis. Be sure you know how to contact their therapist or mental health care provider if needed. Otherwise, your plan can include helping them manage their finances during a manic phase or spending time together when they’re in a depressive phase.
Finally, learn as much as you can about bipolar disorder, particularly the type your loved one suffers from. Get to know what triggers episodes for them and what activities are most helpful for alleviating some of their symptoms. Although you can’t always help them avoid triggers, you may be able to help them manage them more effectively and with less distress.
The Need for Professional Support
You can support your loved one with bipolar in numerous ways, but, ultimately, this condition demands professional mental healthcare treatment. If your loved one experiences symptoms but hasn’t yet been diagnosed, it’s essential to encourage them to seek a diagnosis. There are different forms of the disease. Knowing precisely what they suffer from ensures that they’ll get the best treatments for their condition.
If they have been diagnosed, be sure to encourage them to maintain their treatment appointments and to take their medications if prescribed. Their mental health care providers will help them to manage their condition successfully. Although there isn’t a cure for bipolar, it can be managed to the point that people can cope with their episodes in healthy ways and experience less discomfort. They may also experience fewer episodes with treatment.
At FHE Health, our experienced team of doctors and clinicians regularly treat bipolar disorder. If you or a loved one is experiencing extreme mood swings or other symptoms of a mental health condition, seek help immediately. A trusted provider should be able to diagnose your condition, treat and alleviate symptoms, and provide strategies for managing your condition in the long term.