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Understanding bipolar disorder and getting the right support

Living with bipolar disorder can feel like an emotional rollercoaster, where the highs of euphoria and the lows of depression can dramatically impact your life. Navigating these extremes in mood can be challenging and exhausting. However, understanding the condition and seeking the right help and support can help you regain a sense of control and balance in your life.

Despite how common bipolar disorder is, many misconceptions still surround this mood disorder. This blog aims to explore this disorder and its symptoms, what causes it, and what treatment options are available to help you lead a more stable and fulfilling life.

How common is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a lot more common than you might think. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that bipolar disorder is one of the top 10 causes of disability worldwide. In the UK, it effects 1.3 million people – that’s 1 in every 50 of us (APMS, 2014).

What are the symptoms?

Bipolar disorder is characterised by significant mood swings that can range from soaring highs to very low emotional states. Understanding these symptoms is crucial both for those experiencing them and for their loved ones.

Manic or High Symptoms:

  • Euphoria: An unusually elevated mood, feeling overly happy or optimistic.
  • Increased energy: A noticeable surge of energy and activity levels.
  • Less need for sleep: Feeling rested after only a few hours of sleep.
  • Rapid speech: Talking a lot more quickly than usual.
  • Racing thoughts: Experiencing a flood of thoughts and ideas.
  • Being easily distracted: Struggling to stay focused on any task.
  • Impulsivity: Engaging in risky or uncharacteristic behaviour, such as excessive spending, reckless driving, binge drinking, making unwise financial decisions.
  • Irritability: Becoming easily agitated or angry, even over minor issues.

Depressive or Low Symptoms:

  • Persistent sadness: Feeling deeply sad or hopeless most of the day.
  • Loss of interest: A significant decrease in interest or enjoyment of most activities, even ones you previously enjoyed.
  • Fatigue: Feeling extremely tired or having no energy, even after enough sleep and rest.
  • Changes in sleep patterns: Sleeping too much or not being able to sleep.
  • Appetite changes: Significant weight loss or gain due to changes in eating habits.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide: Recurrent thoughts about death or harming yourself.

What loved ones should look out for

If you have a loved one with bipolar disorder, recognising the signs of mood swings can really help provide timely support and intervention. Here’s some things to watch for:

  • Changes in mood: Noticeable shifts from overly happy or irritable to deeply sad or apathetic.
  • Changes in behaviour: Sudden changes in behaviour, such as increased activity or withdrawal from activities.
  • Sleep changes: Significant changes in sleeping patterns, either sleeping too little or too much.
  • Impulsivity or difficulty caring for responsibilities: Engaging in risky behaviours that are out of character or difficulty maintaining daily routines, including work and household responsibilities.
  • Emotional outbursts: Uncharacteristic emotional reactions, such as sudden anger or tearfulness.

What causes bipolar disorder?

The exact cause of bipolar disorder is not known, but there are several potential contributing factors.

  1. Genetics. If you have a sibling or a parent with bipolar disorder, you are at a higher risk of developing the disorder as well. Research is still ongoing regarding the role specific genes may play in developing bipolar disorder. However, no single gene is thought to cause bipolar disorder.
  2. Neurotransmitter imbalance. An imbalance in neurotransmitters – the brain’s chemical messengers – plays a significant role in many mood disorders, including bipolar disorder. 
  3. Environmental factors. Stress, abuse, significant loss, or other traumatic experiences may trigger or worsen bipolar disorder in people. Substance abuse is also linked to bipolar disorder.

What treatments are available

Bipolar disorder is a long-term condition that requires lifelong management.

Your doctor may prescribe medication, and these can include mood stabilisers, antipsychotic medication, antidepressants, or a combination of these.

As well as medication, NICE guidelines recommend that you are offered specific psychological interventions, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), involving techniques developed specifically for bipolar disorder and the management of depression.

Making lifestyle changes can play a big role in managing bipolar disorder. Ensuring you have a balanced routine of regular exercise, reduced stress, a consistent sleep pattern, and avoiding substance abuse can help you cope with your symptoms.

How can CBT help?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that can be particularly effective for managing bipolar disorder. With a qualified therapist who has experience with treating bipolar disorder, you will be able to understand your symptoms and recognise what triggers bipolar episodes. Together, you will learn and develop effective strategies to manage stress and to cope with upsetting or triggering situations. CBT gives you a toolbox of skills to help you learn to manage the ups and downs of bipolar disorder, skills which can continue to be used after long therapy ends.

How do therapy and medication interact?

For many people with bipolar disorder, medication and therapy work best when used together. Medication helps to stabilise mood swings and reduce the severity of manic and depressive episodes. This gives a more stable foundation for therapy to be most effective. CBT helps develop your coping strategies, maximise adherence to medication, and address the emotional and social aspects of bipolar, which medications alone cannot fully address.

How can you support a loved one with bipolar disorder?

If a loved one is struggling with symptoms of bipolar disorder, you can play a crucial role in their journey towards balance and wellbeing by knowing how to support them.

You can help by:

  • Learning to recognise early signs of mood swings.
  • Gently encouraging them to seek or to continue treatment, including medication and therapy.
  • Being patient and understanding when mood swings happen.
  • Staying informed by educating yourself about bipolar disorder to better understand what your loved one is going through.

Living with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but effective treatments are available. CBT is a powerful tool in managing bipolar disorder, helping you manage your symptoms, and build practical coping skills.  Having the right tools and support can make all the difference and help you lead a fulfilling and productive life.

Would you like to know more about how CBT can help you? Our consultant psychologist, Dr Sian Thrasher, offers a free 15-minute telephone consultation specifically for you to discuss CBT and treatment options.

References

Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (2016) Chapter 9: Bipolar Disorder. NHS Digital. http://files.digital.nhs.uk [Free Full-text]

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