If someone in your life has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder understanding how to cope with their condition is crucial. You’ve taken on a role that you might not have initially intended, but your loved one’s mood disorder does not have to control your life.
Knowing how to recognize and handle the manic and depressive episodes is important, but you also need to take care of yourself.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar Disorder is different for everyone, even if two people have the same type.
There are several types and understanding the key differences will make it easier for you and the person diagnosed to cope with and manage the ups and downs that typically come with “being bipolar”
- bipolar I disorder: depression and mania are typically present, but in some cases, only mania will be present; psychosis is a possibility in an extreme manic state.
- bipolar II disorder: occasionally referred to as “soft bipolar” due to the absence of mania. However, the depression can be more severe and hypomanic symptoms will be present.
- cyclothymic disorder (cyclothymia): hypomania and depressive symptoms are present, but not enough symptoms are present to constitute a full hypomanic or a full depressive episode; like in Bipolar ii, the depressive and hypomanic episodes are noticeably less severe.
Type 1 is the most severe type of Bipolar Disorder, while bipolar 2 is thought to be more common. Cyclothymic Disorder is said to be the mildest, but it will still have an impact on your life and the person diagnosed.
The disorder can also be caused due to the side effects of a medication, a medical illness, excessive alcohol consumption or the use of illicit drugs. If this applies to your situation, it could indicate a more serious mental health issue that should be discussed with a licensed professional. Self-medicating is never the answer.
See here for more information on the types of bipolar disorder.
Challenges of being a Bipolar Caregiver
Living with or even just being friends with someone that is bipolar can be challenging. It is impossible to completely understand the mood swings that they aren’t in control of. Frustration on everyone’s part is common and can easily turn into other problems.
Just like you might not always be able to figure out why their moods change, they can get just as frustrated with you not being able to understand why one day they’re on top of the world and the next barely able to get out of bed. This is the reality of bipolar, and patience is something that you will need in spades.
Eduard Vieta, MD at the University of Barcelona, Spain stated;
“Caregivers are especially distressed by the way the illness has affected their emotional health and their life in general.”
A study on bipolar caregivers in the United States found that depression can be common among caregivers. It is often the result or combination of having little support for themselves, the financial strain the disorder can have, along with the disruption the mood swings bring.
Chances are you will also have to deal with the cultural and social stigmas that still surround mental illness. This often causes additional stress that can begin to affect your overall health.
Assisting with Bipolar Mania and Depression (How do you help someone with bipolar?)
One of the first things you need to know as a caregiver for someone with bipolar disorder is how to recognize the signs of mania and depression.
It is important to remember that everyone experiences these episodes differently, and not all bipolar symptoms will always apply. Once you can start identifying their warning signs or triggers, it will be easier to help them control manic impulses and keep dark depression at bay.
Even though it will take time to learn and recognize the signs, it will be worth your effort in the end.
Here are some signs that a manic episode could be occurring.
- Noticeably sleeping less
- Racing thoughts and rapid speech
- Inability to pay attention
- Increased irritability
- Engaging in risky behaviors
Hypomania, found in Bipolar ii, comes with high energy and can make the person more productive. However, it typically leads to depression that can sometimes last for weeks or months.
Bipolar Depression, regardless of the type of disorder often has the same symptoms. The severity will often vary, but it should never be ignored. Some of the signs you should watch for, especially after a bout with mania or hypomania are,
- Sleeping more than usual
- Loss of energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Loss of self-esteem
- Feelings of restlessness
Suicidal thoughts can also occur, and this is something that you want to watch for. Even if the depression doesn’t “seem to bad”, these thoughts can still occur. Always contact a mental health professional if you believe that this could be a problem. Do Not ignore any warning signs.
You can find the complete list at https://www.bipolar-lives.com/bipolar-symptoms.html
How You Can Help a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder
Wondering how best to help someone that is bipolar? The first thing you need to do is to educate yourself. It is impossible to truly understand the disorder unless you are going through it yourself, but education will help.
There are books, brochures, websites and additional online guides. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) is an excellent place to start your research. Local organizations can also help answer your questions, along with licensed mental health professionals.
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask if you do not understand something, having the correct information will make it easier for everyone.
Some other things you can do to help someone with bipolar are,
- Don’t shy away from physical contact
Hugs, a pat on the back or any other form of affection can be extremely beneficial, regardless of the mood episode. You will want to respect their personal boundaries, but don’t be afraid to show them that you care.
This is vital on everyone’s part. You need to be just as open and honest about your feelings as the friend or family member you are caring for. One tip is to try and watch your tone and words used, it can be easy to be misunderstood. If you have a compliant, try using “I feel” instead of starting the sentence with “you”. It is less accusatory and can keep the conversation flowing.
- Know when “space” is needed
Sometimes, it’s best to give some space during an episode. Don’t take it personally if the person just wants to be left alone. This is normal, and everyone occasionally needs some time to themselves. However, if their need for personal space has them alone for extended periods of time it could signal depression. The trick is to know when it’s healthy and this could take some time. Once again, remember to be patient and let them know that you are there for them.
- Be forgiving
You will need to be able to forgive actions that occur during depression or mania. Understand that it often doesn’t have anything to do with you, but is instead an unfortunate part of the illness. Be able to forgive will also relieve some of the stress, and this is important for your health and well-being.
- Promote healthy lifestyles
Studies have shown that eating a balanced diet, exercising and getting enough sleep can minimize Bipolar Disorder symptoms. It does NOT replace medication and other therapies, but a healthy lifestyle is beneficial for everyone.
What you should never do is make fun of someone for their behavior, even when their moods seem to be “stable”. Also, do not make assumptions. You will never know exactly how someone with bipolar feels. Take the time to communicate and show your affection and support. It will make a difference.
- Have a plan
This discussion should take place during the absence of mania and depression but having a plan in place that you both agree to if a crisis occurs is important. Not only can it reduce stress, it can also prevent the bipolar sufferer from inflicting self-harm if the episode is severe.
Tips on Taking Care of Yourself (Preventing bipolar caregiver burnout)
If you are the main support giver for a loved one or friend that is bipolar, it can be stressful and seem overwhelming at times. There is nothing to be ashamed of and it doesn’t mean that you don’t care enough only that you are human and have limits.
Lesley Burke, Ph.D., at Deakin University has a few tips that can help you stay calm and healthy. If you don’t take care of yourself, it will be almost impossible for you to be able to offer the support that is crucial.
- Learn everything you can about the disorder.
- Accept that the illness is no one’s fault.
- Be sure that you schedule “me time”.
- Find ways to manage your stress.
- Do not ignore your health.
- Have interests/hobbies/ activities.
- Start or join a bipolar caregiver support group.
- Always focus on the positive.
- Have limits set at home.
These are only a few tips that can help you stay healthy. There will still be times of stress, but it doesn’t have to completely control your life.
Focusing on the positive can seem absurd at times, but not every day comes with depression or mania. Remembering those “good” days when it feels like it is impossible to cope can help you get through the rough patches when they hit.
Setting limits at home can help to establish a routine that might carry over during a bipolar episode. During a severe one these “limits” might be broken but don’t take it personally. Use it as a learning experience to better deal with the next crisis. However, if their behavior is becoming dangerous to themselves or others reach out to their primary mental health provider.
Having interests outside of the home also helps, and don’t forget about the benefits of having support from others that understand your unique situation.
Bipolar Caregiver Support
Support groups for bipolar caregivers exist in most cities. The size and topics routinely covered will vary, and it might take you a couple of tries before you find a group that you are comfortable with.1
The main purpose is to give you support, so you don’t feel alone, and provide you with tips and education about the disorder.
There are also online groups if you can’t find one near you or if you are not comfortable talking about your loved one in person.
Mental health care providers and hospitals can also help put you in touch with any groups in the area.
Never be ashamed to ask for help when you need it. It is important for both you and the person you are supporting.
A few places you might want to look into for information on caregiver support include:
- NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
- Recovery, Inc.
- DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support)
See here for more information on support groups for caregivers and those with bipolar disorder. https://www.bipolar-lives.com/bipolar-support-groups.html
You’re Not Alone
Caring for someone that’s bipolar isn’t easy, no matter the amount of education and advice you get. Every day will be different, but it doesn’t have to completely control your life.
Communication is key between you, the person with bipolar and the mental health professional treating them.2
Don’t forget to take care of your own health, and always remember that you are not alone. There are others facing the same struggles with their loved ones. Join a support group for caregivers, whether it is online or in person, it really can help.
Please share your stories and advice, you never know who you might inspire or help.