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Life on a Swing: Bipolar Disorder

by Dr. Ilona L. Tobin

We all experience a variety of moods, including happiness, sadness, anger and frustration. Having “good” moods, “bad” moods and fluctuations in moods is an inevitable part of life.

But when a person experiences extreme emotional highs (mania) followed by extreme lows (depression) and these fluctuations severely and negatively impact how they behave and function in their daily lives, a mood disorder could be the underlying cause. Bipolar disorder (aka manic depression) is an illness that causes severe changes in mood, energy, thinking and behavior. It’s characterized by extreme mood swings, recurring episodes of depression, and one or more episodes of mania. Mania may feel like happiness, but it is not the same thing. Happiness ebbs and flows, while mania is an extreme, prolonged euphoric state that remains high until it crashes. It impairs judgment, negatively interferes with one’s ability to function in daily life and makes one more impulsive and reckless. During a manic episode, people typically experience three or more of the following over the period of a week or more:

  • Anger, irritability or aggressiveness
  • Feeling unusually optimistic
  • Requiring little sleep but feeling extremely energetic
  • Increased, loud or rapid talking
  • Racing thoughts
  • Grandiose belief about one’s ability
  • Being much more active than usual
  • Extremely distractible (unable to focus)
  • Acting on impulse without regard for consequences

Bipolar disorder has no single cause, but both external and psychological factors are believed to affect the disorder and act as “triggers.” The following triggers can initiate episodes and/or exacerbate symptoms:

Stress. Sudden, drastic changes can trigger manic episodes—weddings, getting fired, divorce or moving. Substance Abuse. Drugs like cocaine or ecstasy can trigger mania, while alcohol or tranquilizers can trigger depression.

Medication. Certain cold medications, caffeine, corticosteroids or antidepressant drugs can trigger mania. Seasonal Changes. Episodes of mania and depression typically follow a seasonal pattern. Manic episodes occur more frequently during the summer, while depressive episodes tend to appear during the fall, winter and spring.

Lack of Sleep. Even missing a few hours can bring on an episode of mania. What to Do If You or Someone You Love Has Bipolar Disorder If you recognize the symptoms in yourself or someone you love, don’t wait to get help. Living with Bipolar Disorder affects everything from relationships and employment to physical health. Diagnosing and treating the disease as early as possible can help a person live a more productive, happy life. In addition:

Get educated. Learn all you can about the disorder. Knowing the symptoms and available treatment options can assist in recovery.

Get Treatment. While currently there is no “cure,” the right treatment program, including medication, can help manage symptoms and greatly improve quality of life. Compliance with treatment and medication—even if feeling better—is the key to long-term stability.

Get Therapy. Through therapy you can learn to cope with the disease and change thought patterns.

Lower Stress. Avoid high-stress situations, do something fun, relax, maintain a healthy work-life balance, and incorporate meditation, yoga or deep breathing into your life.

Seek support. Talking to a trusted, supportive person or attending a support group can help you discover coping tips and reminds you that you’re not alone.

Make healthy lifestyle choices. Getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, reducing or eliminating caffeine, sugar and alcohol, and exercising regularly helps to stabilize moods.

Monitor your moods. Keeping track of how you’re feeling on a chart or in a journal can help you spot patterns and minimize or even prevent problems before they start.

Structure. Setting regular times for eating, sleeping, exercising, working, socializing and relaxing helps to stabilize mood swings. Although Bipolar Disorder is a chronic mental illness requiring long-term treatment from a doctor and/or therapist, many strategies can be used to help you stay on track. In the throes of a bipolar episode it’s easy to feel as though the illness runs one’s life, but it doesn’t have to. Armed with a solid support system and coping skills, it’s possible to live a full and productive life.

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Ilona Tobin has been a psychologist and a marriage and family therapist for more than 25 years in Birmingham, Michigan. For more information, please visit her listing on the Therapist Directory.

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