Every time someone casually says something like “Oh I’m so bipolar today” I cringe a little inside. Not because I’m offended, but because I know that so many people have no idea about the reality of bipolar disorder. Here is a list of some of the most common myths I’ve heard.
Myths About Bipolar Disorder
Myth 1. People suffering from bipolar disorder are just moody.
Being moody is more like being a little down because you didn’t lose that last few pounds before your beach vacation. Or being grouchy about the fact that it’s raining on the only day you could go to the pool this month. Being moody is not the same as being fine and functional one day and so depressed you can’t even drag yourself out of bed to eat or shower.
If you’re so depressed you can’t even think straight or focus well enough to do your job, then you’re not “moody”. If you had to drop out of school because you couldn’t concentrate enough to retain the information you were studying, then you’re not “moody”.
You’re not moody if you’ve ever gotten a huge burst of energy and felt so hyper you felt like you could literally jump out of your own skin. And yet, you can’t actually focus any of that energy to do something productive.
Bipolar disorder is caused by actual chemical imbalances in the brain. It’s true that sometimes certain things and events can “trigger” a manic or depressive episode. But often there is no trigger at all. I’ve gone from being perfectly fine to feeling so tired that I needed to sleep 16 hours a day. And then I would STILL be tired. I’ve had to quit jobs because my medications suddenly stopped working (which is actually pretty common with a lot of psychiatric disorders). I’ve been so depressed that someone could be talking to me and I would hear their words fine. But I didn’t have the mental energy to process what they were actually saying and formulate an appropriate answer.
Does that sound like being moody?
Myth 2. Bipolar People Switch From Depression To Mania Often
There are some people that switch faster and more often than others but the idea that people just switch from mania to depression on the turn of a dime is a myth. If you know a bipolar person well enough, you can usually pick up on subtle signs that a transition into depression or mania might be coming on.
Having more energy than usual, talking fast or “pressured speech”, and being more creative than usual can all be signs of impending mania. (For some reason there is a link between creative people and bipolar disorder. In fact, a lot of artists and musicians have the disorder.)
Requiring more sleep, losing interest in hobbies, and social withdraw can be signs that someone is starting to become depressed. (On a side note, I always hate it when people ask if I’ve “lost interest” in my activities. I never actually lose interest. I just don’t have the mental energy required to do the things I like when I’m depressed.)
Myth 3. Mania Is A Good Thing
Being manic is a good thing! It means you’re getting happy. Not necessarily. Some bipolar people do feel happy while experiencing mania. But it isn’t simply a matter of feeling happier.
Even if you feel happier than normal, you’re probably going to have a bunch of other horrible symptoms too. Some symptoms include “racing thoughts”, talking faster than usual (which gets on people’s nerves), and a lack of sleep. When I’ve been hypomanic (a less severe version of mania) I’ve been known to stay awake for 48 hours straight. Why? I just didn’t feel tired.
You’ll probably want to do a million things at once (like signing up for too many college classes AND doing volunteer work AND taking up 10 new hobbies). You feel like you can do anything you put your mind to. But you’ll probably be really irritable and you might find yourself snapping at friends and family for no reason.
So being manic is not normal and it doesn’t mean you’re getting happier or better.
Myth 4. Only Medication Can Help Bipolar Disorder
For most of us, taking medication properly is key to managing bipolar disorder. But there are other important things you can do to help prevent an episode.
- One of the most important things for treating bipolar disorder is maintaining a normal sleeping schedule. When I’m doing well I need about 7 hours of sleep but some people might need less or more. You have to stick to this schedule every night.
- About an hour before sleeping, turn off your computer and TV. Also, put the smartphone away. Electronic devices emit a type of blue light that signals to your brain that it’s daytime. This makes it harder for the body to produce melatonin. You need to send the message to your brain that it’s time to go to bed.
- Eat healthily. Studies have shown there is a link between diets that have high levels of omega 3 fatty acids and lower levels of depression. You should also make sure you don’t eat too many carbohydrates. Sugar has been linked to all kinds of illnesses and an excess of it in the body causes inflammation.
- Exercise. Studies have shown that regular physical activity relieves stress. I try to walk at least 30 minutes every day. When I’m able to stick to it I feel much better.
- Pay attention to yourself and learn your own warning signs. When you know an episode is trying to come on you can take note of that and tell your doctor. Your psychiatrist may decide to change your medication or increase the dose.
Myth 5. Bipolar Disorder Only Affects Mood
I wish! If it only affected your mood it would be easier to deal with. When you’re sad you can usually continue to function. Unfortunately, this disorder causes cognitive and physical symptoms too.
It can make it hard to concentrate on anything. Imagine being in college and doing well enough to have the highest grade in the program. You even make Dean’s List. And then you find yourself declining to the point that you read a paragraph and can’t remember or process what it said. You try again, reading it over and over but you are so fatigued all you can think about is going back to sleep. And then the next day is the same thing. And the next day.
Bipolar disorder also causes random body aches and pains, changes in eating patterns, psychomotor agitation (pacing, finger tapping, and other “restless” motions). It can also cause psychomotor retardation which is a slowing down of both physical activity and thought. You end up missing appointments, forgetting to do things at work, etc.
Myth 6. ALL Bipolar People Self Medicate
There are some people that self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, but not everyone does. The closest I’ve ever come to self-mediating is taking over the counter sleeping pills when I can’t sleep. And it’s important to note that drugs and alcohol DO NOT cause this illness but they can definitely exacerbate symptoms.
Myth 7. All People With Bipolar Disorder Are Abusive
Some abusive people have bipolar disorder, but not all bipolar people are abusive. I’m listing this myth because I’ve seen a lot of people say their exes are bipolar because they were cruel. I understand a lot of times a victim of abuse is desperately trying to find some kind of logical reason for they were treated like crap. But the truth is if someone is abusing you it’s being they’re a horrible person. Plain and simple. Remember, there is a line where the disorder ends and the real person begins. Some people are just jerks.
Myth 8. People With Bipolar Disorder Can’t Have Normal Lives
This isn’t true. There are many people with this illness that work or manage busy households successfully. With proper treatment over 75% of people go on to live normal lives. Chances are actually pretty good that you know someone with bipolar disorder and don’t even know it. Anyone from lawyers and doctors to fast food employees and anyone in between can have this disorder.
Myth 9. People With Bipolar Disorder Had Bad Childhoods
Experts believe that it’s caused by a combination of environment and genes. So, in other words, you can have certain genes that predispose you to bipolar disorder. But it’s your environment that helps turn those genes on, so to speak. But this doesn’t mean that abuse is the only environmental thing that can affect you. There are other types of stresses that someone can experience. I read a case about a woman that developed bipolar disorder after a head injury.