6 Essential Tips for Managing the Mood Swings of Bipolar Disorder

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Roughly 2.3 million people in this country—or 2.6 percent of Americans over the age of 18—have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders (NIMH).

The condition, characterized by mood swings, is among a small handful of mental illnesses that are among the top causes of disability in the U.S. and worldwide, the NIMH has also said.

Though it is a neurological disorder that can be debilitating and as of now cannot be cured, bipolar disorder is often very treatable. In fact, with treatment, the highs and lows are often very manageable; and, contrary to some stereotypes, a patient with bipolar disorder can learn to lead a stable and fulfilling life by choosing good habits and having an overall healthy lifestyle. (Learn more about effective treatment for bipolar disorder at FHE Health.) What follow are some tips for how to manage the mood swings of bipolar disorder.

1. Know the Symptoms of the Highs and the Lows

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For most people the “lows” of bipolar disorder—namely, depressive episodes—are more challenging. Symptoms might include low energy and motivation, loss of interest in daily activities, and self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

There are two “up” states that can also be a part of this illness.  One of these “up” moods is hypomania, which is an elevated mood that is uncharacteristically more animated. The individual might exhibit increased energy, a decreased need for sleep, and some erratic behaviors, but their symptoms may not qualify as mania.

Signs of mania can include pressured speech, little to no sleep, racing thoughts, and hyperactivity, as well as some self-destructive behaviors. Most common self-defeating behaviors are hypersexuality, overspending, mood outbursts, and decline in self-care. Those who are in a manic state may not be able to see their own emotional volatility and or seek out treatment during a manic episode.

2. Best Ways to Take Care of Oneself with a Bipolar Diagnosis

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It is possible to lead a happy and productive life with a bipolar diagnosis. A good support structure can help stabilize mood and other symptoms of this illness. Typically, this entails a combination of medication, therapy, and routine, which usually can mitigate symptoms and keep a person in the best state of mind to be able to function and be productive.

3. Taking Medication as Prescribed by a Psychiatrist

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Bipolar disorder is a genetic brain issue that involves a dysregulation of mood neurotransmitters. This chemical imbalance affects mood and behavior and needs to be addressed by medications under the care of a psychiatrist.

Many people opt to stop their medications, do not take them as prescribed because of the side effects, or instead insist on taking “natural” supplements or vitamins. None of these are helpful approaches. Medications are essential in stabilizing mood and allowing the brain to function despite a deficiency or over-production of chemicals.

Bipolar disorder is just like any physical illness insofar as it is not because of a lack of psychological effort or a moral failing on the part of the patient. Similarly, taking medication to help with the effects of this disorder is not a sign of weakness. It is one very important component of self-care.

4. Individual or Group Therapy

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Research shows that individual or group therapy can also be effective in treating bipolar disorder and an important part of a patient’s care plan. Through therapy, a patient can learn what does and does not work for managing their diagnosis.

Having the support of a professional therapist is helpful on many levels. A therapist can assist a patient with coming to terms with the diagnosis, developing tools and strategies for self-care, addressing the stigma and fear of having a diagnosed disorder, and monitoring and correcting their moods as needed.

A trusted resource can also hold a patient accountable for self-care and consistent management of their illness and provide tools and referrals when needed to help a patient achieve optimal functioning.

5. Therapies That Are Effective for Bipolar Disorder

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Studies have found that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (ISRT) have been helpful for patients with bipolar disorder. CBT seeks to correct thoughts and behaviors that may be contributing to mood instability or other bipolar symptoms.

ISRT addresses social and circadian rhythms, with a view to helping patients develop structure, routine, and stability in their daily life. Supportive therapy with a clinician who is knowledgeable about bipolar disorder can also be helpful.

6. Other Self-Care Strategies That Help

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There are also things one can do on the personal level to manage bipolar disorder, such as:

  • Monitoring moods and emotional health regularly.
  • Avoiding alcohol and drugs that can negatively impact brain function.
  • Exercising regularly to maintain optimal physical performance.
  • Eating healthy to give the body the nutrients it needs.
  • Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule and routine consistently.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Learning healthy coping skills in dealing with mood issues.
  • Maintaining a regular daily schedule and rhythm as much as possible.
  • Having supports in place and avoiding isolation to improve mood.
  • Actively participating in one’s treatment, making appointments, and taking medication as prescribed.

Each person will have different triggers, experience moods differently, and be affected by their illness differently. There is no “one-size-fits-all” treatment. You may need to try different medications, different routines, or, after a few attempts at therapy—find a therapist who works with bipolar patients.

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As with many chronic health issues, patients with bipolar disorder can learn to manage their symptoms and develop healthy coping skills. The time, effort, and commitment to self-care are worth it.  While it may seem like a lot a first, getting into a regular routine, seeing your psychiatrist and therapist regularly, and including day-to-day strategies for healthy living can help you live a full and rewarding life.

This article was provided by Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW, who is Chief Clinical Officer at FHE Health, a national provider of addiction and mental health treatment.