Bipolar disorder affects approximately 1 in every 100 people at some point in their life. It can take a toll on a person’s well-being and hinder their ability to work and maintain relationships.
In this guide to helping someone with bipolar disorder, you’ll learn exactly what the condition is, what it looks like and how to help someone with bipolar disorder live life as easily as possible.
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition where a person’s mood swings from one extreme to the other. However, unlike typical mood swings, these extreme episodes usually last for several weeks at a time, sometimes even longer.
These two very different emotional states are referred to as mania and depression. It’s for this reason that bipolar disorder used to be known as manic depression.
Depression refers to moods where a person is feeling very down and sluggish. Mania refers to moods where they are feeling high and hyperactive.
Often, people are diagnosed with clinical depression before they are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Sometimes, people experience episodes of depression several years before they start experiencing episodes of mania.
Bipolar disorder can occur at any age; however, it is most commonly diagnosed when people are in their teenage years and early 20s.
What are the signs of bipolar disorder?
The two main bipolar symptoms are depression and mania.
The specific symptoms a person with bipolar experiences will vary depending on whether they are in an episode of depression or mania. Symptoms also vary from person to person and can change over time.
During depressive episodes, symptoms may include:
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Lack of energy
- Inability to find joy and pleasure in things
- Marked changes in appetite and significant weight loss or gain
- Feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt
- Insomnia (difficulty sleeping) or excessive sleeping
- Feelings of guilt or despair
- Suicidal thoughts
- Waking up early
- Problems concentrating and making decisions
- Difficulty remembering things
Manic behaviour can look like:
- Exaggerated self-confidence
- Abnormal jumpiness
- Increased talkativeness and talking very quickly
- Restlessness and agitation
- Unusual irritability
- Problems with concentration (being easily distracted)
- High amounts of energy
- Low interest in sleep or eating
- Poor decision-making, such as taking sexual risks or spending large amounts of money
Mood swings from depression to mania and back can take a toll on a person’s well-being. Bipolar episodes can affect a person’s sleep, energy, behaviour and thoughts.
How long do bipolar episodes last?
Some people with bipolar disorder experience more frequent and severe mood swings than others.
Each episode can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. In between episodes, people with bipolar disorder may experience periods of “normal” moods. However, these patterns are not always consistent.
People with bipolar disorder can experience what’s known as “rapid cycling”, which is where a person swings between episodes of mania and depression without any “normal” mood phase in between.
It is also possible for a person to experience symptoms of depression and mania at the same time, such as feeling very restless while also having an especially low mood. This is called a “mixed state”.
Manic and depressive episodes do not always repeat in a regular pattern. Sometimes, people have episodes of mania back to back, without any depressive episodes in between, and vice versa.
What is psychosis?
Sometimes, an episode of mania or depression can trigger a break from reality, known as psychosis. During psychosis, a person may appear to see, hear or taste things that are not actually there (hallucinations) or they may believe things that seem irrational to other people (delusions).
People who experience psychosis should see their GP immediately. If their psychosis is severe, they may need to spend some time in a psychiatric hospital so that they can get the help they need to recover.
What challenges does someone with bipolar disorder face?
The extreme nature of bipolar disorder can cause challenges at school, work and in relationships. It can be difficult to maintain friendships and to hold down a job while coping with intense fluctuations in mood and behaviour. This in turn can harm a person’s self-esteem.
Someone living with bipolar disorder may be unaware that they are experiencing a manic or depressive episode whilst they are in the middle of it. To them, it may just seem like the people around them are being particularly annoying, negative or unhelpful. They may be shocked at their behaviour once they return to a “normal” mood phase.
How to help someone with bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition. However, with a proper treatment plan, a person’s symptoms can be managed to minimise the impact on their daily life.
Here are 8 things you can do to help support your loved one with bipolar disorder.
#1 Encourage them to get professional support
Usually, bipolar disorder is treated with either medication and/or therapy. At the Blue Tree Clinic, our team of experienced psychiatrists and psychologists give people with bipolar disorder access to both treatment options.
Our psychiatrists can prescribe medication to prevent episodes of mania and depression (known as mood stabilisers) and to treat symptoms when an episode occurs.
Our psychologists can help a person with bipolar disorder learn to recognise their triggers and spot when they are experiencing depression or mania. They can also offer support to help the person maintain healthy relationships and learn to cope with their challenges in healthier ways.
A combination of both medication and therapy tends to be the most effective treatment for the majority of people. If you would like to refer your loved one to our private clinic in London, you can get in touch with us using our contact form here.
#2 Help them stay active and eat well
Lifestyle factors can also help a person with bipolar disorder manage their symptoms.
A healthy diet and regular workout routine can reduce the symptoms of bipolar disorder, especially depressive symptoms.
If your loved one would like you to be involved, make a plan together. You could go to a weekly workout class with them, go food shopping together, invite them over for dinner once a week or go for a walk together at the weekends.
Getting a good amount of exercise can improve a person’s mood and quality of sleep.
In addition, some mood-stabilising medications can increase a person’s risk of diabetes. Therefore, maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen is also important to lower this risk.
As well as supporting their eating habits and overall fitness, rituals like these will help your loved one feel connected and give them the opportunity to talk about their experiences with you.
#3 Let them talk about it
Being able to talk openly about mental health issues takes a huge weight off the shoulders of those suffering.
A great thing you can do to help your loved one with bipolar disorder is to simply be there to listen to them. Talking can help them feel both supported and accepted. When a person verbalises the thoughts they are struggling with, the burden of those thoughts tends to be lifted somewhat.
Support groups can also be very valuable for people with bipolar disorder. These groups help people realise they are not alone in their struggles. Charities such as Bipolar UK run support groups in local communities.
These kinds of groups allow people to share ideas, techniques and strategies that help them manage their condition, maintain relationships and live life fully.
Support is available online too in the form of blogs, podcasts, videos and forums. There are lots of articles and personal stories about bipolar disorder available on the Mind website.
#4 Talk openly about your perspective
During a manic phase, your loved one may behave in ways that feel upsetting or embarrassing to you. Although this can be difficult to experience, try not to be judgmental or critical towards them.
Instead, wait until their emotions have settled somewhat and then talk to them about how you are feeling. Try to be as specific as you can rather than making general blanket statements about their behaviour.
When a person experiences hallucinations, it can feel confusing or even infuriating if the people around them don’t see things the same way.
If your loved one is experiencing or believing things that you are not, remember that it all feels very real to them even if it does not to you. Try to stay calm and focus on supporting them through whatever they are experiencing rather than telling them that something is or isn’t true.
#5 Plan activities they enjoy
While your loved one is feeling well, it can be helpful to make a plan with them about what they’d like you to do when they experience a manic or depressive episode.
In both cases, planning entertaining activities can be a good idea.
When someone is experiencing a depressive phase, encouraging them to do things that they enjoy can bring them a sense of achievement and relief. It can help them build their self-esteem and act as a reminder that there are things they love.
During a manic phase, it can be fun to make the most of your loved one’s energy by doing creative activities together like art, music, or dance.
As well as planning activities, you can also plan ways you can help your loved one during a mood episode.
Ask them in advance whether they want your help during a manic episode. If they do, you can help them stick to a regular sleeping and eating routine and offer a second opinion on any ideas they have, including making big purchases.
#6 Learn their signs and triggers
There are often signs that a person is about to experience a mood episode. If you can learn your loved one’s specific signs of bipolar disorder, you can help them prepare for the episode and take action to manage their bipolar symptoms early.
Some common “warning” signs of an episode could include becoming more irritable than usual, sleeping less, a loss of appetite, and appearing agitated, distracted or forgetful.
It can be helpful to sit down and have a conversation with your loved one when you notice certain signs start to appear. Gently let them know that you’ve noticed signs of depressive or manic behaviour, which could indicate that they are going into a mood episode.
Often, certain triggers, such as stress, can bring on a mood episode too. Being aware of your loved one’s triggers means you can have discussions with them and come up with strategies to help them avoid their triggers.
#7 Try not to assume that they are unwell
Although you may want to look out for your loved one and be conscious of their changes in mood, being overly alert is not always helpful.
Remember that everyone experiences some fluctuations in mood and these are not necessarily bipolar symptoms. It is best not to assume that just because your friend, family member or partner appears to have shifted their mood, this means that they are unwell.
Talk to your loved one openly to find out how they are feeling rather than making assumptions about their emotional state.
#8 Take care of yourself
It is very important that you remember to take care of yourself. Even if you feel worried about your loved one, remember that the best way that you can help and support them is by making sure you are a stable person they can rely on.
Take time to look after yourself by doing things you enjoy, spending time in nature or talking about your fears and worries with someone you trust. Looking after your own well-being ensures that you are in the best position possible to support someone living with bipolar disorder.
There are support groups available not only for people with the condition but also for those close to them. You may want to consider looking into support groups in your local area.
Or, you could book some sessions with a psychologist or counsellor to help you manage your own well-being.
Bipolar disorder can be a challenging experience for both the people with the condition and those surrounding them. If you’d like to learn more about bipolar disorder, check out this page.
There are lots of things you can do to support someone living with bipolar disorder and make their mood episodes more manageable. However, remember that it is not your sole responsibility to manage your loved one’s well-being.
Medication and therapy can have a profoundly positive effect and both tend to be very effective in helping someone with bipolar disorder.
We offer extensive bipolar support at our private clinic in London. To find out how we can help your loved one manage their condition and live a fulfilling and balanced life, get in touch with us using our contact form here.