Bipolar disorder is a confusing condition, especially for someone viewing it from the outside. And let’s be honest- it’s usually confusing even to those living with it. But even if you don’t have it or even know of someone who has it; by you simply understanding it better, you gain an ability to help someone who does have it in more ways than one.
Because Bipolar Disorder is often misunderstood (and not to mention, very stigmatized), It’s also misused often to describe the weather or the traffic or your irritable boss.
There are also many misconceptions about Mental Illness, especially Bipolar. I’m usually not one to take offense to things easy, but even I’ve had a hard time dealing with the comments that I’ve heard personally from people like: “You don’t look like someone with Bipolar“… As if there is some kind of uniform out there I was supposed to be wearing so that I “look” like someone with Bipolar… And you’ve probably heard this comment before where someone says, “She’s always having mood swings. She must be Bipolar or something…“ And while that comment is totally inaccurate and it’d be fair if you felt offended… Let’s try to understand why it’s better to ignore the misconceptions and do your best not to feel offended because this is a perfect opportunity to educate someone.
Even more important than learning how to explain Bipolar Disorder to someone who misuses mental illness words or has misconceptions is the fact we have a group of loved ones that we need to learn how to open up to and let inside. Those of us living with this Mood Disorder rely heavily on the support of our loved ones to carry us through the dark times. We owe it to them to try and explain what’s going on in our head and why our behavior is different at times. Let’s do our best to explain Bipolar in a way that’s easier to understand.
The Simple Explanation:
Mood swings are not the same as Bipolar Disorder, but I can see why they might look like it from the outside looking in or if you haven’t been around someone who has Bipolar. Ordinary people will certainly experience mood swings throughout their lives. Because not everyone will experience Bipolar, we can use the similarities and major differences between mood swings and the mood disorder, Bipolar. Keep reading to find out how to explain the complicated brain disorder in a way that’s easier to understand for those who don’t experience it themselves.
Yes, we all experience mood swings and mood swings do happen to be a symptom of Bipolar. They are not easy for anyone to deal with. The difference between the two is this: moodiness is a response to a trigger or stressor that makes sense. It is caused by either a physical trigger or psychological stressor. For example, a physical trigger could be something like poor diet habits or consistent headaches which cause moodiness. The psychological triggers that cause a mood swing are things involving high stress like a divorce, financial problems, anxiety about the kids, unemployment, etc… Even though people understand they have a lot going, they can become moody without realizing what specifically the stressor is. A mood swing is created by your body beginning to respond to the stressors in your life and begins to feel threatened. Your body responds to this threat by going into a mode similar to fight-or-flight which affects your mood. Also, a mood swing will last a few hours and then you can use helpful techniques to calm yourself down and you have the ability to return back into a normal state of mind.
So, how are they different?
Bipolar Disorder, simply summarized, involves extreme low-moods and high-moods along with a variety of other symptoms. Once the disorder is triggered, it becomes a life-long process that takes on a life of itself and remains active with no cure available. One aspect of Bipolar Disorder that’s different from mood swings is that mood swings involve a stressor a trigger that caused your body to react in a way that affects your mood. In contrast, Bipolar Disorder (BPD) consists of a dysfunction in the brain that creates intense mood shifts without stressful triggers. When someone has begun to experience a mood shift, it won’t be long before biological and physiological symptoms begin and start to affect the ability to complete everyday life tasks. Even though there are eight different Bipolar Disorders; the one consistent factor in all varieties of Bipolar is the two different, unpredictable and extreme moods that one will go through; Depression (low mood) and Mania (high mood).
When you become depressed, you may feel sad or hopeless and lose interest or pleasure in most activities. When your mood shifts to mania; your brain is overproducing adrenaline which begins to make someone feel euphoric, full of so much energy that they become restless and can’t sleep. The symptoms for both Mania and Depression become intense, all-consuming, appear out of the blue and cause impairment in judgment. They differ from mood swings because Bipolar Disorder episodes, whether it be Mania or Depression, affects sleep, energy, activity, judgment, behavior and the ability to think clearly. Besides the difference in intensity between mood swings and Bipolar Disorder; the duration of the two conditions is very different. Mood swings we have mentioned last a few hours while episodes of Bipolar Disorder can last weeks or even years in extreme cases.
So how do we explain Bipolar Disorder in a way that’s easier to understand? Everyone can experience mood swings and they can be very hard to manage. However, in time, mood swings will evolve and become the colors in your life. They’ll continue to come and go as long as you experience stressors, but you can avoid them by learning stress management techniques. Bipolar Disorder is a dysfunction in a part of the brain that affects mood. It will not go away, there is no cure and often there is no stressor that kickstarts a transition from one mood to the next. The levels of intensity reach dangerous peaks as they begin to affect the ability to complete everyday tasks. The duration is much longer; an episode of mania (high-elevated mood) or depression (intense, low mood). Mood swings do not require medication. Bipolar Disorder is so complex that there is a variety of medications a person with BPD has to take in order to tame the episodes and ease the intensity of episodes. Most of the antipsychotic and mood stabilizer medications come with their own set of symptoms that add to the challenges of living with Bipolar however, people can find the proper medication and learn to manage their episodes and function normally in their everyday lives.
Using your new knowledge to give Help & Hope:
On a personal level, I have to acknowledge how hard Bipolar is. I live through it every day and take a lot of time to learn about it so I can eventually learn to manage it, but I have a long way to go. While some people have learned to manage their disorder and function more normally in their everyday life– that takes a lot of time, patience, trial and error, and practice. Even after two years, I haven’t found one medication that’s helped me more than it’s symptoms harmed me, mentally. I know many people take years of living with these intense, life-changing mood shifts before they find out how to manage them. My emotions seem to come unhinged, my thoughts feel out of control, my mind and body are never in sync and my mood shifts rapidly cycle from day to day. It’s taken a lot of work trying to keep Bipolar from negatively affecting my ability to function in life; and to be honest, I haven’t always been successful. My relationships with friends, my husband, my family and at my workplace have all transitioned in one way or another. This brain disorder does indeed take on a life of its own. It becomes so complex and causes your thoughts to become so distorted that you truly can’t put together words that explain how you are even feeling because it’s hard to understand yourself. The brain is arguably the most powerful part of our bodies and we are essentially trying to win a fight against ourselves when we have Bipolar Disorder. I share this with you because there are times where someone simply checking in helped me more than they knew. Because someone knowing more about Bipolar than just the misconception helps people that live with the disorder realize they’re going to be okay; life is full of struggles and one of mine just happens to be Bipolar right now.
Knowledge is power, it doesn’t even have to be on Mental Health. Learning new things is a way I keep my mind busy. It puts a stop to the racing thoughts and gut-wrenching anxiety because my brain is occupied and the overwhelming thoughts immediately become background noise. But there is something powerful and beautiful when you decide that you can learn what you know and apply it in a way that helps someone else. I think people can forget how important and what a big difference it can make when someone is kind enough to ask the simple question, “how are you really doing?” then listen and respond without judgment. This simple skill set allows someone with a Mental Illness to feel a sense of normalcy again as they begin to open up to you. Someone who could be feeling isolated from the world and uncomfortable in their own skin just needs someone to remind them that they will be okay, and if you can understand what they are going through, then it’s you that has the power to be the one that helps get them through the darkest moments in their life… and it’s all because you took the time to educate yourself on a topic as important as Mental Health and Mental Illnesses.
Do you struggle telling people about a Mental Illness you battle on a daily basis? Let’s hear your story!
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Until next time,