Bipolar disorder can lead the sufferer to feel as if they have little to no control over their emotions. Both low moods and mania can last for an extensive period, leaving the patient wondering when the tide will turn and feeling helpless. Medication can be effective, but many struggle to find the right combination to balance the depressive and manic sides of the disorder.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of depression in which there is a pervasive sense of hopelessness, sadness, lack of motivation and shame. This is alternated with periods of mania, in which the patient may experience a significant increase in energy, pie-in-the-sky ideas and the desire to engage in risky activities.
As with any mental disorder, patients may assume that an improvement in symptoms means they are getting better, rather than that the medication is lessening the symptoms effectively. As Carrie Bearden, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and psychology at UCLA explains, when a patient does not address symptoms with medication they experience a worsening of symptoms. The episodes will appear together more closely and increase in severity as the disorder is left untreated.
Bearden also stresses the importance of being familiar with a medication’s side effects. Knowing side effects means a readiness to combat them.
An important mental and physical health aspect of treating bipolar is getting enough sleep. Those with bipolar often complain of sleep problems, sometimes taking lengthy naps in the middle of the day. However, irregular sleep patterns can often trigger a manic or depressive episode.
Seeking out therapy is another way that bipolar patients can keep their symptoms in check. Bearden says that therapy is important because it can help patients to understand the events and thoughts that they experience. Interpersonal therapy can also benefit bipolar patients who often struggle with relationships.
While overstimulation can be a problem for bipolar patients, isolation can also trigger symptoms. Bipolar people often wear their friendships out, so if friendship is a challenge, bipolar patients can also seek out hobbies or volunteer opportunities that allow them to interact with other people.
A bipolar patient that’s aware of their triggers can be on the alert when making life changes like starting a new job or getting divorced. Even a small event that disrupts balance can result in an episode.
Bipolar patients should try to have a couple of close friends or family members that they can honestly talk with about what they’re going through. That trusted confidante or two may be able to help watch for triggers or recognize the signs that a manic or depressive episode is emerging.
Bearden also encourages patients not to give up when trying to find appropriate treatment. Physicians may have to test the impact of several different medications before finding the right combination to address a bipolar patient’s problems. Bearden says that patients should take charge of their health, asking doctors questions about how medications should work and what they should expect if the medication is effective.
About half of all bipolar patients also struggle with substance abuse. Bearden stresses that they need to avoid using alcohol or drugs. While it may seem as if the substance is lessening the depressive symptoms, it may instead contribute to sleeplessness and other triggers that set off an episode.
Finally, Bearden recommends that bipolar patients be careful about maintaining a healthy weight. Many bipolar medications can lead to weight gain, but they can affect patients in varying ways. Any major weight change should be mentioned to the prescribing doctor.