Coping with bipolar disorder

Caroline Cassidy

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a serious condition that involves extreme highs and lows of mood. Thanks to a number of high profile celebrity sufferers, the stigma surrounding this often deeply troubling condition has dissipated somewhat, but it can be difficult to diagnose.

Coping with bipolar disorder
Coping with bipolar disorder

Pic: Corbis

If you think you may be suffering from bipolar disorder, here are the signs and symptoms, and information on how to cope with the condition.

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What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar sufferers experience extreme highs - 'episodes' of mania - and extreme lows - depression - each of which can last for several weeks at a time, or even longer. Episodes of depression can be debilitating, with overwhelming feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, and in some instances, thoughts of suicide. The manic phases, on the other hand, cause the sufferer to feel extreme happiness and often a high level of creativity, making plans and having ideas for the future. The downside is that these extreme highs can result in an ability to sleep or eat, and some find they go on a spending spree they cannot afford.

These extreme mood swings are the key symptoms of bipolar disorder, but since episodes can last for a considerable period of time, sufferers are often diagnosed with depression to begin with, simply because it is during these episodes that they are likely to seek help. A period of depression may result in lethargy and disinterest in everyday activities, feelings of emptiness, worthlessness or hopelessness, lack of appetite, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, all of which can lead to suicidal thoughts. In a severe depressive episode, sufferers can also experience delusions. Self harm is also a common symptom, but is not necessarily an attempt at suicide, more a method of distraction or of gaining control.

By contrast, a manic phase causes feelings of elation, happiness, self-importance and energy, with the sufferer tending to make grand plans for their creative ideas. There are similarities with the depression phase, however, including being easily distracted, not feeling like sleeping or eating, becoming irritated, and taking risks that can have serious consequences, such as spending large amounts of money. As with the depression phase, some also experience delusions.

Some sufferers experience depression episodes more frequently than manic phases, or vice versa, often with so-called 'normal' periods in between. Where there is no 'normal' period, but simply a repeated swing between high and low, it is known as rapid cycling.

Medication can be prescribed both to prevent episodes (mood stabilisers), and to treat the symptoms. These may be required on a long-term basis. Though many sufferers are treated this way, where it is deemed that a person is a danger to themselves or to others, they may be detained under the Mental Health Act and treated in hospital.

Psychological treatment is also a key treatment for bipolar disorder. Some find it helpful to learn more about the condition (psychoeducation), while cognitive behavioural therapy and family therapy may help sufferers and their relatives to cope better with the problems when they do arise.

Self help
Due to the nature of the disorder, bipolar sufferers and their families and friends often find day-to-day life extremely difficult, but there are techniques that can help you to cope.

A healthy diet and regular exercise is essential. Staying active can help to reduce the symptoms, particularly during a depressive episode, while having a routine on which to focus can prove an important tool in coping with the condition. Since weight gain is a common side effect of some medications, a healthy lifestyle will help to reduce the risk of developing related physical health problems. Drugs and alcohol should be avoided to aid recovery from episodes of mania or depression.

Talking about the disorder, with friends and family, with charities or support groups, or with fellow sufferers, can also be a helpful strategy. If you are not comfortable talking to those close to you, there are a number of charities and support groups, such as Mind, SANE, Rethink and the Samaritans, that offer advice and help, either online or by telephone, or via discussion boards that connect you or your family with others in a similar situation. Such services can prove invaluable for sufferers, particularly during periods of depression.
Some sufferers find they are able to recognise the early signs or triggers prior to an episode, allowing them to seek help quickly. A GP can then either alter medication as necessary, or refer the patient to services such as crisis services or assertive outreach teams, who can be on hand quickly and at the patient's home to help.

If you believe you or someone you know may be suffering from bipolar disorder, don't suffer in silence - visit your GP and get the help and support you need to better cope with the condition.

Are you bipolar? How do you cope with the symptoms and everyday life? Leave your comments below...