What is bipolar disorder?
Do you sometimes feel more energetic than usual or even unstoppable — and at other times feel extremely drained or as if you have absolutely no energy? Have you noticed that sometimes you feel as if you could do anything, and at other times you feel down or depressed? Are there days when you barely need to sleep to feel refreshed, and other days when all you can do is sleep? If so, these might be symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is different from the good days and bad days that everyone has. People with bipolar disorder experience very intense mood states that are a drastic change from their usual mood and behavor. Bipolar disorder includes both "highs" (feeling almost supercharged with tremendous euphoria, optimism, and energy) and "lows" (feeling down, sad, and without energy or interest in doing much of anything).
These high and low periods may happen separately, or there may be periods that have the elements of both. The high and low periods may last for hours, days, weeks, or even months. While some people find these high periods enjoyable, they may also feel extremely irritable or be easily angered during these periods. Bipolar disorder can make it very difficult to function at work or in social settings. It can also cause strain on family and personal relationships .
“I would go from having a very good day to all of a sudden feeling awful about myself. It took me a while to recognize that this wasn’t the way I wanted to live.”
Bipolar disorder is not the result of a character flaw, and people don't bring it on themselves. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families, so researchers are studying factors like genetics and differences in people's brains to better understand the condition. There is no single cause of bipolar disorder. Some Veterans experience an increase in their bipolar symptoms related to stressful events, difficult living or working environments, or challenging family situations.
Whatever the cause, bipolar disorder is a treatable medical condition that can affect people from all walks of life, including members of the military. Proper treatment helps people with bipolar disorder actively manage their condition and gain better control over their moods and related symptoms. While bipolar disorder cannot be cured, it can be treated effectively over the long-term.
What are the signs of bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder symptoms vary over time. In an “up” swing, also known as a manic episode, you may feel extremely happy, energetic, or on edge and irritable. You may feel overly self-confident or even take dangerous risks. In a “down” swing, you may feel depressed or hopeless. You may lose interest in the things you normally enjoy, find it hard to make decisions or remember things, and have very low energy. Sometimes these mood swings may happen close together; sometimes there are periods between mood swings when you are not really "up" or "down," but feel more like your usual self. You may have more down periods than up periods, or they may occur in about equal lengths of time. Regardless of the pattern, if you are having severe changes in your mood, sleep, or energy levels, you may want to reach out for support.
“I was on a constant roller coaster of feelings and emotions.”
Signs of manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder may include:
- Doing things you later regret such as spending lots of money, engaging in reckless sexual activity, gambling excessively, or having arguments
- Finding it hard to stay focused
- Thinking too fast or feeling as if your mind is racing
- Talking faster than usual — so fast that others have a hard time jumping in
- Appearing to be high even if you haven’t taken drugs
- Taking dangerous risks or getting into unsafe situations
Signs of depressed episodes associated with bipolar disorder may include:
- Being unable to break out of feeling sad
- Feeling hopeless or having a negative attitude toward most things
- Having low energy
- Having difficulty remembering things, making decisions, or thinking clearly
- Eating more or less than is usual for you
- Sleeping more or less than is usual for you
- Feeling less interest in doing your usual activities
- Not enjoying things you normally enjoy
Some people with bipolar disorder may have thoughts of harming themselves or wish they were dead. You might think that others would be better off without you or that there is no other way out of your problems. These thoughts are very serious and need immediate attention. It’s important that you talk to someone right away if you have thoughts of death or suicide. To reach the Veterans Crisis Line, Dial 988 then Press 1, use the online chat service, or send a text message to 838255. The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
What is the treatment for bipolar disorder?
Having bipolar disorder doesn’t mean that you just have to live with these symptoms. There are several effective treatments for bipolar disorder that can allow you to pursue your normal daily activities and continue to do the things you enjoy. Many Veterans have been treated for bipolar disorder with great results.
“I wasn’t sure the medicine my doctor prescribed would work and I was afraid it would make me different in a bad way. But it didn’t take long for me to notice I was able to deal with the ups and downs much better.”
Treatments for bipolar disorder usually involve medication combined with some form of counseling for you and your family. Medications work in different ways to affect the chemicals in your brain that may be associated with mood swings and depression. Counseling can help you and your family to recognize the early signs of your ups and downs and to establish steps you can take to get these problems under control. You can also practice new ways of thinking and positive behaviors to better handle the stress bipolar disorder may cause at work or in your relationships.
Treatment should always be tailored to your specific needs. You and your doctor or counselor will work together to find what works best for you. Even severe symptoms can be controlled with good treatment. However, mood changes can still occur while receiving treatment, so an ongoing relationship with a doctor will help you make any needed adjustments. Bipolar disorder is a chronic condition that requires ongoing management.
Controlling the amount of stress in your life by not overdoing things and practicing relaxation exercises like deep breathing or meditation can also help with bipolar disorder.
To better manage bipolar symptoms, try to remember to:
- Take your medicine every day as prescribed.
- Take brisk walks or do moderate exercise regularly.
- Get enough sleep and stay on a sleep schedule.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Avoid alcohol, illegal drugs, and overuse of medications.
- Limit caffeine and nicotine during manic episodes.
- Keep a chart of your moods to help you recognize the early warning signs of your manic and depressive episodes.
- Reach out to others. You may need support, whether you’re depressed or experiencing mania.
What can I do if I think I have symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Your family and friends may have noticed that you have some of the signs of bipolar disorder. The observations of others may be especially helpful in helping you recognize bipolar disorder, since many people experiencing mania feel so good that they can't tell there's a problem. Talk to people you trust about what you’re experiencing and ask them what they've noticed. They may be able to provide you with support and help you recognize and manage your mood swings.
The sooner you find out what your symptoms might mean, the sooner you can learn to manage them and the better your recovery is likely to be. Although there are no lab tests for bipolar disorder, a licensed professional can discuss with you what you’re experiencing and help you improve your quality of your life.
Take the next step to connect with care.
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What about other options at VA? VA offers a variety of tools and resources.
- The Veteran Training online self-help portal for overcoming everyday challenges includes modules on managing anger, developing parenting and problem-solving skills, and more.
- Mental health apps for Veterans cover a variety of topics, ranging from PTSD to anger management to quitting smoking.
- VA TeleMental Health connects you with a VA mental health provider through a computer or mobile device in your home or at your nearest VA health facility. You can learn more about this option from your local VA medical center.
- Vet Centers are community-based counseling centers across the nation in all 50 states and US territories that provide a wide range of social and psychological services, including counseling to eligible Veterans, service members – including National Guard and Reserve components – and their families. Counselors and outreach specialists, many of whom are Veterans themselves, are experienced and prepared to discuss the tragedies of war, loss, grief, and transition after trauma. To learn more, find your nearest Vet Center. Teams are also available 24/7 by phone at 1-877-927-8387.
What about support beyond VA?
There’s a whole community of support ready to help with whatever you’re going through. Use this tool to find resources near you.