Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, is a serious and potentially disabling mental illness. People with the condition can experience dramatic mood swings that take them from euphoria to depression, from recklessness to listlessness, often in short periods of time. Or, the mood swings can be less dramatic, ranging from an increase in energy alternating with episodes of depression.
Responding to the challenges these shifting moods present is essential and possible.
“The primary disorder is that the brain is unable to consistently regulate mood within a normal range,” says Jane Mountain, M.D., author of Bipolar Disorder: Insights for Recovery, and an honorary board member of the Mental Health Association of Colorado. “However, those with the condition who learn to proactively problem-solve when they’re feeling good are better able to put those plans in effect when they’re feeling ill.”
According to Dr. Mountain, “Effective treatment for bipolar disorder is like a three-legged stool because you need to focus on three treatment elements to be functional.”
Prescription medication is the first treatment element. Medication helps control hypomanic, manic, depressive or mixed episodes. Medications known as “mood stabilizers” are prescribed for extended periods of time to help control mood swings. Other medications are added when necessary to treat episodes of mania or depression that break through despite the mood stabilizer.
“Working with your doctor to find the most effective medication regimen is imperative,” says Dr. Mountain.
Psychotherapy, the second element, can help you and your family learn coping skills and problem-solving.
The final element is education. Learning everything you can about bipolar disorder and your moods helps you better manage the condition.
The following self-care strategies can help you manage bipolar disorder.
Learn to recognize warning signs of changing moods. “Becoming an expert in your “mood-clues” -- warning signs that you’re heading toward mania or depression -- can help you take steps immediately so you may forestall a full-blown episode,” says Dr. Mountain. “For example, if you know you tend to sleep more when you’re headed toward a depressive mood, if you recognize your energy is low, get more exercise or take other steps you know will help relieve your depression.”
Be aware of suicidal thoughts. About 25 to 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder make at least one suicide attempt.
Build a support network. Health care providers, therapists, family and friends, and members of a support group are the foundation of your support.