By Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC
“To heal illness, begin by restoring balance.” –Carolone Myss
Individuals who struggle with the ups and downs of bipolar disorder (along with their loved ones) can tell you that there are definite changes in mood and behavior preceding the onset of mania or depression. Some individuals know themselves well and can identify when to ask for and receive extra help with managing the disorder. Others are not as keen to their own mood fluctuations and may need assistance from family, co-workers, therapists, and friends to recognize the symptoms early on. The quicker one can pinpoint breaks in mood and behavior, the greater the chances of intercepting the onset of full-blown mania or depression.
The medical symptoms of bipolar disorder are outlined in the DSM-V. Every person is unique, therefore specific warning signs are easier to identify early on when there is an awareness of which symptoms that person experiences most frequently. When the early signs of mania and depression arise, it is helpful to have an arsenal of tools one can use. For example, it is essential to address apparent triggers by introducing healthy coping skills and grounding techniques to the individual’s self-care routine. The implementation of new methods is a good way to continue building confidence.
In order to effectively learn and recognize the signs of mania and depression, it is useful to keep a mood chart- a calendar that keeps a record of one’s daily/nightly life. Factors to keep track of include sleep patterns, drug or alcohol use, medication, diet, and any changes in weight or exercise. When a significant life event or stressor occurs, these things should be recorded on the calendar as well. For women, keeping track of their menstrual cycle is also helpful due to the effect hormones have on overall mood and brain chemistry. Having those closest to the individual also keep track of typical changes in routine is useful when treating and managing bipolar disorder. After recording for a few months, the individual, their family, friends, and therapist have a physical representation of events and begin to see recurring patterns allowing them to more readily identify and address triggers early on.
A simple way to explain managing bipolar disorder is to give the example of eczema. The earlier it is treated, the less severe the outbreak and quicker the healing time. In addition, staying calm and knowing that the outbreak is temporary and not permanent, that it will pass, and avoiding unnecessary stress will all make the healing process faster.
Remember, every body and every mind experiences the changes that occur leading up to a bipolar episode differently. Keeping track of these changes does not guarantee that an individual will cease to have the exhilarating highs and excruciating lows that characterize bipolar disorder. More realistically, it will help with managing severe mood fluctuations if and when they do occur. Recognizing the early signs and practicing self-awareness is empowering for the individual to have an understanding of the active part they play in managing the disorder.
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