Written by therapist Megan Hanafee-Major

Bipolar Disorder is a diagnosis that has been misunderstood and even unfairly demonized. Because of this, it can feel scary if a therapist or doctor suggests that you or a loved one might have Bipolar Disorder. In reality, Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder not unlike Major Depression and, when properly managed, doesn’t have to be intimidating. 

The word “bipolar” describes the main features of this diagnosis- two extreme sides. People who have Bipolar Disorder experience times feeling “low” or depressed, and also times feeling “high” or manic. We are fairly familiar with what depressive episodes look like: sad mood, feeling tired, not being interested in doing things, negative thoughts, etc., but manic episodes are less well known and understood. If the average difference between emotional highs and lows is a car ride over a bumpy road, Bipolar Disorder might feel like a rollercoaster. 

Highs and Lows

Some common things that a person may experience in a manic episode are: 

  • not feeling tired or like they need sleep, even for days at a time
  • starting projects and not finishing them
  • feeling unstoppable, like they can do anything
  • doing reckless things like excessive impulse spending, driving dangerously, or risky/unprotected sex
  • racing thoughts and/or feeling distracted easily

For many people with Bipolar Disorder, these periods of mania can last between four days, to over a week, with periods of depression lasting two weeks or more. This is what makes Bipolar Disorder different from average mood swings that everyone experiences at one point or another.

It is a human experience to have times when we feel sad and times when we feel excited about life. Those with Bipolar Disorder, though, often report that their shifts in mood feel like they are out of their own control, or are above and beyond normal emotional experiences that they see in others. Understandably, this can be confusing and overwhelming. It might feel like your life is ruled by your moods. Living as though you don’t know if you will feel on top of the world or unable to complete basic tasks can be defeating. 

Types of Bipolar Disorder

There are two types of Bipolar Disorder – Bipolar I disorder and Bipolar II disorder – as well as Cyclothymic disorder. You and your providers can determine which fits your experience best. The primary difference between each of these is the length of episodes and how many symptoms are present at a time. Understanding a person’s unique symptoms can help them and their support team tailor their treatment needs to fit best. For example, certain medications or coping mechanisms can benefit one presentation more than others.

Both Bipolar I disorder and Bipolar II disorder have the highs and lows described.  With Bipolar I disorder these tend to be more extreme- many manic or depressive symptoms at once.  To be diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder, a person needs to have one manic episode and can be diagnosed without having a depressive episode, although they often have had them.  Those with Bipolar II disorder have had at least one depressive episode that lasted two weeks or longer and at least one hypomanic episode. A hypomanic episode includes similar signs as a manic episode, but is shorter and/or has fewer symptoms.  Because hypomanic episodes aren’t as severe and manic episodes, people with Bipolar II disorder may appear to have Major Depressive Disorder instead.

Managing Bipolar Disorder

The good news is, Bipolar Disorder can be managed! Typically, a combination of therapy and medication has been shown to be the best treatment plan. Medication helps level out the chemical components of the mood shifts, making them less severe, shorter, or more predictable. Working with a therapist can improve the ability to recognize when a manic or depressive episode is beginning, what to expect, and how to prepare and manage the symptoms that come with each. 

With a dedicated care team and patience, Bipolar Disorder doesn’t have to feel like a rollercoaster. Working with your counselor and doctor or psychiatrist to find the right balance of therapy and medication can help someone with Bipolar Disorder straighten out the extreme hills and valleys. Your life doesn’t have to be controlled by your shifting moods, you have the power to direct your path. Feel free to reach out to us here Optimum Joy for extra support today!

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