Understanding bipolar

Although it is estimated that between 1% and 5% of people worldwide have bipolar, it is a widely misunderstood and misdiagnosed. We spoke to Izzy Spilsbury, Mind in Bradford’s Health Engagement Officer, to learn more about bipolar and debunk some common myths and misconceptions.

What does bipolar mean?

Bipolar refers to a mood disorder where someone experiences moods that range from extreme highs to extreme lows, with episodes often lasting a number of days at a time. While we all experience changes in moods on a daily basis, for someone with bipolar these are often sudden, intense and can be very overwhelming.  

What are the symptoms of bipolar?

The most obvious symptom is the experience of extreme highs, or mania, and extreme lows, depression. The symptoms of mania can include increased energy levels, feeling irritable or easily agitated, and behaving unusually impulsively. During a depressive state though, the symptoms may appear as feelings of hopelessness, a loss of interest in everyday activities, and increased tiredness. Some may even experience suicidal thoughts during their depressive episodes, which can be incredibly distressing.

What are mood episodes or mood states?

Mood episodes or states refers to the experience of either mania or depression, and the duration over which these take place. The pattern of these mood episodes can vary between each individual. Some may experience more episodes of depression, while others might have more episodes of mania, with the regularity of these episodes being different for each person.

How can you get a diagnosis of bipolar?

A diagnosis usually starts with a visit to your GP. If you’ve been experiencing episodes of mania and depression a doctor can identify this and if they suspect it may be bipolar, they can then refer you on to a psychiatrist; a doctor specialised in mental health problems. After an assessment with the psychiatrist, they’ll be able to determine if you have bipolar, and what type you may have.

What types of treatment are available?

The main two types of treatment are talking therapies and medication. Talking therapies involve talking with a counsellor or therapist, where they’ll often use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help you address the difficult feelings that come with bipolar. In terms of medication, there are a number of options available that can be discussed with a doctor to find the right one. A combined approach of using both treatment types often works best for those living with bipolar.

What are some common myths about bipolar?

Medication is the only treatment…

While medication is a great step in helping to treat bipolar, there are numerous other proven methods to combat symptoms. Psychotherapy, talking therapies and looking after your physical health are all great methods to tackle the difficult symptoms that come with bipolar.

Bipolar only affects your mood…

While bipolar is a mood disorder, it has an impact on so much more than this. Bipolar is known to affect your sleep, energy, behaviours and thoughts. Some drugs used to treat bipolar can also impact your appetite, often leading to weight gain. 

Bipolar is rare…

Bipolar is actually one of the most common long-term conditions in the UK. There are currently about 1.3 million people living with a diagnosis of bipolar here, meaning that out of every 50 people there is 1 with this condition. 

People living with bipolar can’t keep a job…

It’s a common misconception that someone with bipolar is likely to face employment issues, but the truth is that many bipolar people hold steady, professional jobs. There are many inspiring authors, actors and academics living with bipolar that just go to prove that you can still achieve a fulfilling career despite your diagnosis.

You’re either always manic or depressed…

While people with bipolar experience episodes of each, that doesn’t mean these feelings are permanent. In fact, it’s actually very common to have prolonged periods of time without feelings of either state, this balanced mood being called euthymia.

You can’t live a healthy/ ‘normal’ life with bipolar…

Living with bipolar can be challenging, but, with the right treatment to manage your symptoms you can absolutely live a healthy life. People with bipolar can have positive and fulfilling relationships, friendships, careers and hobbies. In fact, many bipolar people are very conscious about their health, both physical and mental, and may actually take care of themselves more than the average person.

How can I support someone with bipolar?

If you feel as if someone you know is struggling from symptoms of bipolar, it’s important to approach the situation with care. They may not have spoken to anyone about how they’re feeling, so don’t force them to talk, but ask if they would like to and simply listen to what they have to say. If they do open up they may appreciate an offer of support, perhaps helping them book a doctor’s appointment or finding online assistance. The key elements to supporting a loved one with bipolar are as following:

  • Listen to what they have to say, take them seriously and learn about what it means to have bipolar.
  • Be understanding and patient, allow them take the time and space they need while being non-judgmental and offering the support they require at that time.
  • Reach out if you’ve not heard from them for a while or know they might be facing some difficult or stressful situations, let them know you’re there for them by sending a text or giving them a call.
  • Offer to attend their doctor’s appointment or support sessions with them, this can help them to feel less like their facing it alone.

How does bipolar affect physical health?

Those living with bipolar are more likely to smoke, be diagnosed with diabetes, and have a greatly increased risk of being overweight. Medication, like antipsychotics, is also known to cause weight gain, by increasing your appetite and lowering your energy levels. These impacts on physical health cause increased chances of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and a reduced life expectancy. Because of this impact on physical health, it’s greatly important that anyone with a diagnosis of bipolar attends their annual health check at their local GP.

Everyone with a diagnosis of bipolar is entitled to a free Annual Health Check, for more information visit https://www.healthyminds.services/services/smi-physical-health-checks-21

Tips for managing bipolar

  1. Get to know your mood episodes by keeping a mood diary, this helps you track how you’re feeling before, during and after them and to identify triggers.
  2. Use your mood diary to understand your triggers, where they occur and what events lead to a trigger occurring.
  3. Learn what helps you prevent a mood episode taking total control, what has helped before and how you can put steps into place to support you in the future.
  4. Find a daily routine that works for you, taking time for yourself to relax and recharge.
  5. Take care of your physical health by taking part in exercise you enjoy and eating nourishing foods that make you feel good!
  6. Find people you trust that you can talk to when things feel tough, support from others can be a great help when you’re not feeling your best.

If you need to talk to someone, we have a number of services available at Mind in Bradford. If you need someone to talk to call Guide-Line on 08001 884 884.

For more information and resources about bipolar, please visit Bipolar UK or Mind.

Posted on: 15th January 2024

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