What is it Like Living with Bipolar Disorder?
Movies like Silver Linings Playbook have helped to increase awareness about bipolar disorder in the public imagination, but these fictional depictions usually fall short when it comes to describing what it is like to actually live with the condition. Of course, it’s a common misconception that all people diagnosed with bipolar disorder experience it the exact same way – in fact, there is a wide variation in how people experience symptoms and manage symptoms.
“It does not have to define you and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.”
Mariah Carey (talking about living with her bipolar disorder diagnosis)
Living with bipolar disorder can be challenging. This is more likely to be the case if you don’t have sufficient support and resources to manage the condition. It is absolutely possible to live a good life despite this diagnosis, and it is important that you don’t allow it to define who you are.
Different Types of Bipolar Disorder
The three main types of bipolar disorder are:
- Bipolar I involves severe manic episodes (these can last a week or more) followed by a period of depression (the extent of depressive symptoms varies between individuals).
- Bipolar II involves recurrent episodes of major depression followed by a period of hypomania (see below).
- Cyclothymic bipolar disorder (cyclothymia) involves less extreme episodes of depression and hypomania.
Mania, Hypomania, and Depression
A manic episode (mania) may involve distorted thinking, racing thoughts, poor concentration, feeling superior to other people, delusions, increased energy levels, impulsiveness, reckless behavior, a loss of self-control, and a reduced need for sleep (some people can go weeks without much sleep). The person in the midst of a manic episode can ruin their relationships, accumulate debt, damage their career, and put their life in danger. It can also involves hypersexuality, substance abuse, and paranoia. If left untreated, a manic episode can last weeks or even months.
Hypomania is less extreme than mania and will usually only last for a few days. It involves heightened mood with increased energy levels – some people describe it as a feeling of euphoria. Those who are experiencing an episode may be friendlier than usual and appear excited by ideas or projects. They may be easily distracted and at times irritable and agitated. Those who are experiencing hypomania are at risk of making poor decisions and acting impulsively.
Depression is like having all of the good things sucked out of life. There can be a sense of almost unbearable sadness, and all hope for the future disappears. Individuals in the midst of depression can feel worthless, and lose all interest in things they would usually enjoy - even getting out of bed can be a struggle. Depression can involve sleeping too much or too little or eating too much or too little. It can also lead to thoughts of suicide.
Other Symptoms Associated with Bipolar Disorder
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Anger outbursts
- Seasonal adjustment disorder
What Causes Bipolar Disorder
We don’t yet know exactly what causes bipolar disorder, but there is almost certainly a genetic factor as those with a family member with this diagnosis are more likely to develop it (although the majority of people with bipolar disorder have no relatives diagnosed with the condition). Scientists have so far failed to find a gene that is responsible for causing the condition, but it is most likely to involve a number of genes that are triggered by environmental factors such as bereavement, emotional trauma, illness, sleep problems, or high levels of stress (https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/bipolar-disorder/causes/).
Treatment Options for Bipolar Disorder
The focus when it comes to treating bipolar disorder is managing symptoms. There is no cure, but it is possible to learn to manage their condition well enough to live a normal life (worth repeating: don’t allow a diagnosis to define who you are) . It is also common for people with the condition to have long periods (months or even years) without having an episode. There are medications that treat the symptoms of hypomania, mania, and depression, and there are also mood stabilizers that can prevent these episodes in the first place.
“The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday, that’s guaranteed, and I can't begin to explain that, or the craziness inside myself and everybody else but guess what? Sunday is my favorite day again. I think of everything everyone did for me and I feel like a very lucky guy.”
Pat (Silver Linings Playbook)
Talk therapies (e.g. psychotherapy or counselling) can play an important role when it comes to coming to terms with bipolar disorder. This can help people gain a better understanding of their situation, and it is then possible for clients to work with their therapist to find solutions for the challenges they face. Just talking to someone who is able to listen without judgement can be a huge help.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is another evidence-based approach that is particularly good at helping clients manage symptoms and reduce the frequency of episodes. The main focus of CBT is on thinking patterns and how these a significant impact on how we experience life (e.g. negative thoughts can make a situation far worse than it actually is). This approach can help clients better deal with life, and thus increase the likelihood of remaining symptom-free.
Mindfulness can be an effective way of managing stress, and it also helps people deal better with changes in mood. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a new approach that may be of particular value to clients dealing with bipolar disorder. The current evidence suggests that mindfulness may not be as effective if clients are introduced to it during a manic or depressive episode https://journalbipolardisorders.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40345-020-00197-y (in other words, some clients may benefit more if they begin this practice during a time when they are relatively stable).
Another key element of treatment of bipolar disorder can be becoming involved in the bipolar disorder community. This makes it possible to gain support and advice from people who know what it is like to live with this condition first-hand. The internet has made it much easier to find this kind of support.
Common Triggers for Bipolar Episode
- Not getting enough sleep.
- High levels of stress.
- Alcohol or drug abuse.
- Relationship problems.
- The changes of season.
- Financial problems.
- Major life changes.
Tips for Living with Bipolar Disorder
- Build a support network – bipolar is much tougher to deal with if you are going it alone.
- Learn as much as you can about any triggers associated with episodes of mania, hypomania, and depression. It can be helpful to maintain a journal.
- Be sure to get enough sleep.
- Have fun – find activities you enjoy and do these regularly.
- Get better at dealing with stress (e.g. relaxation techniques can be a huge help).
- Don’t compare yourself too much with other people – your journey is unique.
- Some people find that having a regular routine makes it easier to manage stress.
- Get enough physical exercise – this is not only got for your physical health but also your mental health.
Inpatient Treatment for Bipolar Disorder
It is usually going to take more than one approach for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder to live life to the fullest. It is also true that what works well for one person may not be as effective for another individual. One of the benefits of joining an inpatient program is it means that you will have access to multiple treatments, so you can discover what works best for you. Spending time in a supportive community can be a huge relief that provides you with the strength and optimism to take the necessary steps needed to improve your life going forward.
180 Sanctuary is located in the North of Thailand, and we would like you to consider joining our community. We can provide you with a nurturing environment where you can benefit from therapy sessions, mindfulness/mediation, and wellness therapy. Clients are also invited to engage in a wide range of activities such as: yoga, float therapy, sound therapy, cycling, Muay Thai, swimming, and archery. Contact us now to find out more.