Bipolar disorder is a type of depression characterised by mood swings or periods of time when the sufferer feels very low and depressed, followed by a manic period of intense energy. This disorder is also commonly known as “manic depression”.
Around 568,000 Australians are thought to be affected by bipolar disorder, or about 2.9% of the adult population.
Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
During a manic episode, a person with bipolar disorder will usually have lots of energy and feel great. However, manic episodes can quickly become too intense and unpleasant resulting in frustration, difficulty focusing, and even hallucinations and psychotic episodes.
Bipolar disorder is commonly misdiagnosed as another type of depression because it can be hard to detect without witnessing a manic episode. Additionally, those with the condition are unlikely to seek help when they are on a high mood swing as they feel so positive and productive. If you’re experiencing mood swings along with depression, it’s important to explain this to your doctor.
Some of the warning signs that characterise mania include:
- A reduced need for sleep
- Talking very fast
- Feeling restless or anxious
- Feeling overconfident, taking on many new projects
- Engaging in risky behaviour such as gambling
Depressive episodes can cause symptoms including:
- Feeling sad for no particular reason for long periods of time
- Lack of interest in hobbies and usual interests
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Severe fatigue
- Sleeping too much or insomnia
- Changes in appetite
- Suicidal thoughts
Causes of Bipolar Disorder
The causes of bipolar disorder are not fully understood, but there seems to be a genetic link and you’re more likely to develop the condition if you have a close relative who has struggled with similar issues in the past.
Other causes of depressive or manic episodes include stress, traumatic events, and the use of drugs or alcohol. Bipolar disorder can also start during pregnancy or after giving birth.
Some people have other psychological disorders or physical health conditions that can worsen the symptoms of bipolar disorder. These include anxiety and eating disorders.
Bipolar disorder cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Treatments can be short-term to deal with a current acute bout of depression or mania or may form part of a longer-term treatment programme aimed at preventing the major mood swings from occurring and helping you to cope with your feelings.
The depressive episodes of bipolar disorder respond well to anti-depressants that are used to treat other types of depression.
SSRIs (Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) are the most common medications used to treat bipolar disorder and depression in Australia. These drugs do not have as many side-effects as some other types of medications, and so they are usually tried first.
SSRIs work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a naturally occurring compound that’s known as the “happy chemical” as it’s thought to regulate mood. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression and mood disorders.
There are several different types of SSRI produced under various brand names. The medication that’s right for one person may not be suitable for another person – either because it’s not compatible with your medical history, because it causes unpleasant side-effects, or because it simply doesn’t work. For this reason, some people taking medication to treat bipolar disorder and depression may try several different drugs before they find one that’s suitable.
Mood stabilisers are also used to level out the mood swings that come with bipolar disorder. Lithium carbonate and sodium valproate are common medications used in Australia.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT is a psychological therapy that’s often used in conjunction with medication to manage bipolar disorder. This type of therapy helps you to identify negative beliefs and behaviours, and learn strategies to replace them with more positive ones.
Living with someone suffering from bipolar disorder can be stressful for the whole family. Additionally, people with bipolar disorder don’t always realise the damaging impact that their mood swings are having on others.
Family therapy helps the whole family unit to communicate and understand each other more effectively. Therapy can help individuals to cope better with stressful situations, such as a divorce or death in the family. Family members can also be trained to watch out for the warning signs of a depressive or manic episode so that preventative steps can be taken.
Coping and Support Strategies
Being aware of the warning signs and symptoms that you may be about to enter a major depressive or manic episode means you can then seek medical help before things get worse.
If you suffer from bipolar disorder you should avoid drugs and alcohol, as these can make your symptoms worse and may reduce the effectiveness of medications.
It’s important that you keep taking any medication you’ve been prescribed as directed, and don’t stop even if you’re feeling better. If you want to come off medication or your health status has changed (for example, if you become pregnant) talk to your doctor first.
Support from family and friends is also a vital component of your coping strategy. Try to surround yourself with positive and supportive people and avoid those who have a negative impact on your mood or encourage destructive behaviours, such as drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
It’s also essential to live a healthy lifestyle in general including eating a varied and healthy diet, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough sleep. Exercise and meditation can help to combat the effects of stress.
Joining a support group or attending group therapy sessions for other people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder can help you to feel less alone in your struggles, and you can learn from the coping strategies of others.
Where to Get Help
If you think you may be suffering from bipolar disorder, your first port of call should be your normal family doctor. He or she will discuss your symptoms and any other health concerns and may prescribe a course of medication.
It can be helpful to keep a diary of your mood including any major events or triggers in your life and show this to your doctor at your appointment.
Psychotherapy is also an important part of treating bipolar disorder, and there are several types of therapy that can be helpful.
To find out more about counselling for depression and bipolar disorder, contact the team at Psychological Health Care in Perth. Our clinical psychologists are trained and experienced in working with people suffering from depression and will work with you to develop strategies to help you cope during this difficult time in your life. Contact us to request an appointment today.