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Bipolar disorder signs, symptoms, and treatments

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For most of us, our moods have only a minimal effect on our lives. If we wake up grumpy, it may result in a bad day or a couple of questioning glances and frustrated sighs from family members and coworkers.

But, a few miserable hours really don’t change the course of our lives or have a huge effect on our relationships.

Dealing with everyday issues can impact our emotions, leaving us feeling sad, happy, angry, worried, or excited; but, these are transient moods that may affect our “moments” but not our months and years. And, usually, we are aware of our attitudes and will admit that we are irritable or sensitive. Often we are even able to give an explanation for our mood.

For people with bipolar disorder, however, it is a much different story.

Mood changes when you have bipolar disorder

Imagine having your mood swing wildly from one pole (positively excited or even euphoric) to the opposite (sad and depressed). That’s one effect of bipolar disorder – hence the name.

A particular mood (whether euphoric or depressed) may last for months or years and will “dominate their interaction with the world, and disrupt their normal functioning” often resulting in significant problems with “cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and somatic (body system) functioning”.

This is not a very funny way to live! Also, it is not very funny for the loved ones of the person who suffers from bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder anxiety has many symptoms, and they are obvious. A person with an anxiety episode will be bouncing around, fidgeting with their nails and hair and may not even be able to sit still for even a short period of time. Sometimes anxiety doesn’t manifest itself outwardly, but rather one fell like they have so much energy and their thoughts are racing so much that they can’t concentrate on any one thing for more than a few seconds, leaving them unable to accomplish anything. This can only intensify the anxiety as they realize that the symptoms aren’t necessarily outwardly visible, and yet they aren’t fully functional making the anxiety even worse.

Bipolar disorder and anxiety can lead to a number of problems when a person tries to self-medicate. Many turn to alcohol which can reduce the symptoms for a bit, but after the alcohol wears off the symptoms return with even more intensity. Many bipolar disorder sufferers battle alcoholism as they tend to drink more and more trying to reduce the anxiety that they feel. This can cause a serious loss of control that has been statistically associated with successful suicide attempts.

When bipolar anxiety and depression occur at the same time it can be devastating. Bipolar depression and anxiety are a dangerous cocktail that leads people to feel that the future is hopeless and pointless and their current situation feels unbearable, often leading to suicidal attempts. It is very important to note that this is very treatable and can be managed with help. If you don’t currently have a physician you should take steps to keep yourself safe and if necessary you can always go to an emergency room for help.

Depression and bipolar disorder

Bipolar depression symptoms are usually manifest in long periods of sleep and the inability to make simple decisions. One with bipolar depression may cry for no reason at all and may never know why, just a deep feeling of being sad. This is a serious disorder and should not be treated as simple depression as the treatment for both vary greatly.  Bipolar depression will leave one with decreased energy and the feeling that one does not want to do anything, no matter how much they may want to normally.  Fatigue is another symptom of bipolar depression. This is manifest in both physical and mental exhaustion, even after long episodes of sleep.

Another symptom is lethargy, characterized as extreme drowsiness. While you might be responsive, you are not interested in doing anything at all. One with bipolar depression will normally withdraw from pleasurable activities and social interaction.

Recovering from a depressive episode usually takes three times longer than a manic episode and the majority of suicides and attempts are during one of these episodes.  It is a time to take extreme caution and a heightened awareness of where a person is mental.

A person environment can greatly impact the onset of such bipolar depression episodes and great care should be made to reduce drama and stress to one when they are experiencing such episodes. A calm, clean and structured environment can make a dramatic difference in recovery.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should seek a qualified medical opinion on whether you are suffering from bipolar depression or simple depression.

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that left untreated has severe repercussions.

Bipolar and science

There has been some suggestion that stress, difficult relationships, or a traumatic childhood experience can lead to bipolar disorder, but the evidence for this idea is thin at best. In fact, any minimal evidence seemed to show that only a small percentage of people relapsed due to stressful factors, and even then, the stress had to be very severe.

There is a difference, however, between causes and “triggers”. While stress, lack of sleep, steroid medications for conditions such as asthma or arthritis, or drug use may ‘trigger’ episodes in people who have already experienced bipolar symptoms, they themselves are not a ’cause’. Episodes are not always triggered by something specific, in fact, they may have no explainable reason at all, but sometimes depression or mania may be brought on by a particular event.

Recently, a new promising field of study has been developing. Since scientists already know that thyroid abnormalities can mimic bipolar disorder, this prompted them to begin investigating a link between mental illness and infectious agents. The immune system is very complex, and research has shown that it interacts with the brain and affects behavior. Although this area requires much more extensive research, it does offer some hope to those suffering from bipolar disorder. If a connection can be made between mental illness and infectious agents or immune factors, then it is possible that the condition can be treated with medications that will boost immunity or fight infection. Other scientific studies have shown amazing results! Scientific research against depressive disorders.

Bipolar disorder treatment

Treatment can vary from person to person, and doctors will often experiment with options to discover what works most effectively for individual.

Ultimately, the goal of any treatment program is to address two main aspects of bipolar disorder: relieving existing symptoms and preventing recurrences. This is accomplished with medications, psychosocial therapies, and in some cases, specialized treatments such as ECT or alternative medicines.

Basically, bipolar meds fall into two main categories: mood stabilizers and those used to treat specific symptoms (adjunct medications).

Perhaps the most well-known and effective mood stabilizers are the drug lithium. This drug has been used for over 50 years and has been one of the most successful bipolar treatments, often helping to correct both the manic and depressive phases of the illness.

In one study, only 36% of 212 bipolar patients experienced relapses while taking lithium as compared to the 79% relapse rate among a group of 68 patients who were administered placebos. These findings show that lithium not only relieves symptoms but may actually prevent them from developing, leading some doctors to believe that treatment should continue on a long-term basis, even after the current episode has passed.

Adjunct medications are used to treat specific symptoms such as sleep disruption, depression, anxiety, or psychosis. Drugs thought to be effective in treating manic episodes are usually from a group of medications known as neuroleptics, also referred to as antipsychotics. These drugs work quickly but often have side effects.

Antidepressants will frequently be prescribed to treat depressive episodes. These work by adjusting the levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, seratonin, and epinephrine. The use of antidepressants among bipolar patients must be monitored carefully because they can actually throw neurotransmitter levels in the opposite direction, causing a switch into mania or rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Like neuroleptics, these drugs should only be used on a short term basis to correct immediate symptoms, then mood stabilizers will be prescribed for long-term maintenance.


This article was written by Dr. Andrew Gordon, M.D. in neurology and psychotherapy; Associate Professor of Neurology at the University of Washington, Law, and Humanities Committee of the American Academy of Neurology, and chair of the Ethics Committee of Northwest Hospital.
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