Whether you live with bipolar disorder or live with someone who has it, you may be well aware of the issues associated with it. Even if no one in your household has the condition, chances are that you know someone who has it, as it affects around 1 percent of people. That’s around 3 million people in the US.
Bipolar Disorder: The Basics
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder. We all have moods—good ones, bad ones, and grumpy ones. However, bipolar disorder creates mood changes that are completely at odds with events. You might feel incredibly miserable during an otherwise entertaining film or you may find yourself feeling ecstatic at a funeral. These sorts of moods can make it difficult to function, which is why it’s a disorder.
Moods are also classified by the way they make you feel. A high mood means you feel happy and content—or even euphoric. A low mood means you feel sad and miserable—possibly angry. Some mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder means you only feel low moods. These are often called unipolar disorders, as there is only one mood. As you might guess, bipolar disorders involve two moods—the high and the low.
Mood changes can happen at a whim and are not controllable by the person who has the condition. They are real conditions involving real biological changes within the brain. Because of this, however, they are treatable.
Diagnosing the Disorder
Because of the way bipolar disorder is thought to happen, there are no lab tests that can diagnose the disease. This makes diagnosis harder, which is why patients spend an average of eight years seeking help for this distressing condition.
In brief, there are four main types of mood that the person may suffer from:
- Mania: An episode of extremely elevated mood lasting for a week or longer.
- Hypomania: Less severe than full-blown mania, but mood is still elevated for a week.
- Depression: A two-week period of intense misery.
- Mixed: Mania and depression alternating during the day; alternatively, both may be present simultaneously.
These definitions are brief and do not tell the whole story. Mania may be accompanied by intense activity, enhanced creativity, and complete irresponsibility. Occasionally, the manic person will have hallucinations or delusions. Both mania and depression may be accompanied by insomnia.
How Can I Help Myself?
The first step is to see a healthcare professional. Explain what exactly is wrong, how your symptoms present, and other parts that seem relevant. Your doctor may prescribe medication, suggest counseling, or a combination of the two.
The first stage of medication is to get the extremes under control. This may require a combination of drugs. Note any side effects and whether your symptoms improve or get worse. Different combinations work for different people, so the first combination may not be the correct one for you. However, most of these drugs require at least a month to work; some can take as long as six months to fully take hold. You need to keep taking the medication on a regular basis to ensure the best and quickest route to recovery.
Once your symptoms are under control, your doctor will prescribe maintenance doses. To keep your symptoms under control, you need to take these doses as prescribed. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition—while it may ebb and flow, it will never be completely cured. In addition, you need to take part in any therapy sessions your doctor recommends.
It helps to be completely honest and open when seeking treatment. If you are involved with anything that could worsen the disorder, such as self-medicating on prescription, nonprescription, or illegal drugs, you need to tell your doctor. This then ensures the appropriate treatment is prescribed. Around 50 percent of people who are bipolar seek solace in substance abuse, including alcohol, opiates, and benzodiazepines, so it’s not unusual.
The most important thing is, however, to learn everything you can about your illness. The more you know, the more you can do something about it. Consider taking a mood chart, tracking your mood each day. You can see the signs of progress throughout the month.
How Can I Help a Family Member?
Those seeking help need support. You may offer physical support, such as helping them get to appointments, feeding them, and keeping track of where they are. You might offer emotional support, encouraging them, being nonjudgmental, and providing someone to talk to.
You can also help the person take medication and watch your loved one for signs of suicide—a particular risk when a combined manic-depressive episode (a mixed episode) hits. Learn the signs of each type of episode, so you can adjust what to expect each day.
Recovery cannot be rushed. If your loved one doesn’t want to do something, be understanding. The most important thing is to push for a solid recovery, not just a mere reduction in symptoms.
Medication for Depression and Mania
Bipolar disorder combines two major but opposing symptoms: mania and depression. The treatment for one is not the same as the treatment for the other. Your doctor will be able to recommend something for your exact symptoms.
The first major class of drug is a mood stabilizer. These generally reduce manic and hypomanic episodes. The three most common drugs are lithium, valproate, and carbamazepine. You will need to undergo blood tests to ensure these drugs are working and not producing dangerous side effects. As a rule of thumb, doctors use lithium for euphoric mania, valproate for mixed episodes, and carbamazepine for those who experience rapid changes in mood. However, your personal medical history may require a combination of these or an exclusion.
If you have anxiety, something that’s not uncommon with bipolar disorder, you may be prescribed a benzodiazepine or something like haloperidol or perphenazine. These drugs help calm you or soothe yo to sleep.
Finally, you may need an antidepressant. These might include citalopram, fluoxetine, or another SSRI. All combinations will need to be carefully monitored to ensure the right effects occur: lower mood when manic and raised mood when depressed.
It’ll Be Fine
Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but it is very treatable. Talk to your doctor today to see what can be done. If someone you love suffers from bipolar disorder, learn everything you can to help them get through this condition.