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Supporting a Loved One With Bipolar Disorder

A man talking to his brother-in-law about options for Bipolar Disorder treatments and medications.
Talking with family about seeking treatment for Bipolar Disorder, while being supportive, can be important to their overall mental health.

Written by: Jordan Kadish

Reviewed for Accuracy by: Kassie Love, MMFT,MPH

Life can sometimes feel like balancing on a tightrope. There is a delicate balance between the ups and downs that come with each day, and sometimes, walking on the rope can feel difficult. Now, picture walking on the same tightrope while carrying another individual. This is sometimes how it can feel to navigate life while supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder. Supporting someone you love and care about with any mental illness can be extremely difficult. There are many things to think about, especially in terms of understanding their condition the best you can and providing appropriate support. This blog post will explore how to support your loved one with bipolar disorder in the most helpful ways possible, whether you are looking to help someone understand the best therapy for bipolar disorder or managing bipolar without meds!

Understanding Bipolar Disorder[1]

Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depressive illness, is a mental illness characterized by “high highs” and “low lows” in mood, energy, and daily life. Those with bipolar disorder know these fluctuations all too well, with intense highs called manic episodes, and lows known as depressive episodes, often controlling their life. These mood swings can throw life off balance and strain relationships, which is why you, as a loved one, may find it difficult to see someone you care about with bipolar disorder struggling.

Beyond the distinct phases of mania and depression, it's essential to recognize that bipolar disorder exists on a spectrum, encompassing various subtypes and manifestations. One subtype is Bipolar II disorder, which is characterized by recurrent depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes, which are less severe than full-blown manic episodes. Understanding these variations is crucial because they may influence the choice of treatment, such as bipolar 2 depression medication, which is often used to manage depressive symptoms in this subtype.

Additionally, the severity and frequency of mood swings can vary widely among individuals. Some may have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, characterized by 4 or more mood episodes within a year, while others experience more extended periods of stability between episodes.

While the exact causes of bipolar disorder are still being researched, we do know that it is a mix of genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences[2]. Stressful life events can often trigger episodes in individuals with a predisposition to the disorder, such as a family member having it, or a genetic chemical imbalance.

Recognizing the Symptoms and Behaviors of Bipolar Disorder

Manic episodes may look like this:

  • Rocketing Energy: Sudden increases in energy levels that seemingly come out of nowhere.

  • Impulsive Choices: Engaging in risky or impulsive behaviors, like speeding while driving or breaking public rules.

  • Lack of Sleep: Functioning with very little sleep.

  • Fast Speech: Speech is faster and wordier.

  • Unusual Highs: An unusually elevated or euphoric mood without direct cause.

Depressive episodes may look like this:

  • Persistent Sadness: A lingering feeling of sadness or hopelessness without direct cause.

  • Joyless Days: Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy.

  • Drained Energy: Unexplained fatigue or lack of energy.

  • Changes in Sleep and/or Appetite: Significant shifts in eating or sleeping habits, whether it is overeating/sleeping or undereating/sleeping.

  • Loss of Focus: Struggling with concentration and decision-making.

Tip #1 - Practice active listening.:

Active listening is the secret to effective communication with someone struggling with their mental health. It is giving someone your complete attention and really getting what they're saying. You're not just hearing the words; you're understanding their feelings and thoughts. It's about showing that you care and creating a solid connection for better communication and building a stronger relationship. To actively listen,

  • Show empathy. Understand and acknowledge what your loved one is speaking about, and the emotions behind what they’re saying.

  • Show no judgment. Steer clear of criticism or judgemental language.

  • Create a safe environment. Listen with open body language. Nod along as your loved one speaks and never interrupt.

Tip #2 - Empathize and Understand:

Putting yourself in the shoes of your loved one can help you recognize their struggles and provide much-needed emotional support. Avoid using phrases that belittle or diminish what they are going through like, “Cheer up,” or “Think of the bright side of life.”

Tip #3 - Encourage Professional Help:

Gently nudge your loved one toward professional help, and offer to help them find resources. Therapy and medication, including Bipolar1 and Bipolar 2 medication, can work wonders in managing this disorder. Approach this topic with care and emphasize that seeking help is a sign of strength. This is an important step for those with a loved one managing bipolar without meds. Many times, after getting professional help, they discover that medication is necessary.

Tip #4 - Help Create a Low-Stress Environment:

Stress can trigger episodes for those with bipolar disorder [3]. Helping create an environment that is as stress-free as possible is an idea. Be mindful of situations or topics that may trigger anxiety or mood swings, and work together to minimize those stressors.

Tip #5 - Respect Autonomy:

Although your loved one will likely feel grateful for your help, you should also understand that they still make end-of-life decisions regarding their treatment and life choices. Offer guidance, but ultimately, respect that they are capable of making their own decisions.

Self-CAre for Supporters

  1. Set boundaries. To properly support a loved one, you have to first take care of your own needs. It’s like putting on your oxygen mask first. Establish healthy boundaries so you can provide support without losing yourself and your health in the process. If you feel burnt out or overwhelmed, it may be time to take a step back and care for yourself.

  2. Manage your emotional well-being. Being there for someone can be emotionally draining. Lean on your support network of friends, family, or a therapist, to manage your stress and take care of your mental health.

Supporting a loved one with bipolar disorder is a challenging but vital role. By understanding the condition, practicing empathy, and encouraging professional help, you can make a significant difference in their journey toward stability and recovery. Your unwavering support is a powerful force in their recovery and overall well-being. And hey, don't forget to put on your oxygen mask—self-care is your best friend.

Kassie Love is a psychotherapist specializing in more intensive mood and emotional regulation needs, as well as unusual thoughts and experiences. Visit here to learn more and see how you can improve your mental well-being.

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