What is bipolar disorder?
Do you sometimes feel energetic and unstoppable—then later feel drained or like you have absolutely no energy? Have you noticed that sometimes you feel as if you could do anything, and at other times you feel depressed? Are there days when you barely need to sleep to feel refreshed, and other days when all you can do is sleep? If so, these might be symptoms of a bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is more than just the good days and bad days that everyone has. People with bipolar disorder experience extreme shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels. For instance, people with bipolar disorder have extreme mood swings—from feeling almost supercharged with tremendous energy to feeling so down that it may be hard for them to find the energy to do much of anything. These extreme mood swings can happen over a short period of time or over several months. Bipolar disorder can make it very difficult to function at work or in social settings. It can also lead to strain on family and personal relationships.
“I would go from having a very good day to all of a sudden feeling awful about myself. It took me a while to recognize that this wasn’t the way I wanted to live.”
Bipolar disorder is not your fault, and it’s definitely not the result of a character flaw. One possible cause could be related to the chemicals in the brain, and these problems may be genetic or run in the family. Some Veterans experience an increase in their bipolar symptoms related to stressful events, difficult living or working environments, or challenging family situations.
Whatever the cause, bipolar disorder is a treatable medical condition that can affect people from all walks of life. Treatment helps people manage bipolar disorder symptoms and resume their daily activities.
What are the signs of bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder symptoms vary with your mood swings. In an “up” swing, also known as a manic episode, you may feel extremely happy, energetic, or on edge. You may feel overly self-confident or even take dangerous risks. In a “down” swing, you may feel depressed or hopeless. You may lose interest in the things you normally enjoy, find it hard to make decisions or remember things, and have very low energy. Sometimes these mood swings may happen close together; sometimes there is a space in between them when you are not really “up” or “down,” but feel more like your usual self. Regardless of timing, if you are having extreme mood swings, you may want to reach out for support.
Signs of manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder may include:
Doing things you later regret such as spending lots of money, engaging in reckless sexual activity, having arguments
Finding it hard to stay focused
Thinking too fast or feeling like your mind is racing
Talking faster than usual—so fast that others have a hard time jumping in
Appearing to be high even if you haven’t taken drugs
Taking dangerous risks or getting into unsafe situations
“I was on a constant roller coaster of feelings and emotions.”
Signs of depressed episodes associated with bipolar disorder may include:
Some people with bipolar disorder may have thoughts of harming themselves or wish they were dead. You might think others would be better off without you or you might feel there is no other way out of your problems. These thoughts are very serious and need immediate attention. It’s important that you talk to someone right away if you have thoughts of death or suicide. Call the Veterans Crisis Line, at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. You can also use the Veterans Crisis Line online chat. Both services provide free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
What is the treatment for bipolar disorder?
Having bipolar disorder doesn’t mean that you just have to live with its symptoms. There are several effective treatments for bipolar disorder that can allow you to pursue your normal daily activities and continue to do the things you enjoy. Many Veterans have been treated for bipolar disorder—and treatment works.
“I wasn’t sure the medicine my doctor prescribed would work and I was afraid it would make me different in a bad way. But it didn’t take long for me to notice I was able to deal with the ups and downs much better.”
Treatments for bipolar disorder usually involve medication and often some form of counseling for you and your family. Medications work in different ways to affect the chemicals in your brain that may be associated with mood swings and depression. Counseling can help you and your family to recognize the early signs of your mood swings and establish steps you can take to get these problems under control. You can also practice new ways of thinking and positive behaviors to better handle the stress bipolar disorder may cause at work or in your relationships.
Treatment should always be tailored to your specific needs. You and your doctor or counselor will work together to find what works best for you.
Controlling the amount of stress in your life by not overdoing things and practicing relaxation exercises like deep breathing or meditation can also help with bipolar disorder.
To better manage bipolar symptoms, try to remember to:
Take your medicine every day as prescribed
Take brisk walks or do moderate exercise regularly
Get enough sleep and stay on a sleep schedule
Eat a healthy, balanced diet
Avoid alcohol, illegal drugs, and overuse of medications
Limit caffeine and nicotine during manic episodes
Keep a chart of your moods to help you recognize the early warning signs of your manic and depressive episodes
Reach out to others—you may need support, whether you’re depressed or experiencing mania
What can I do if I think I have symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Your family and friends may already have noticed that you have some of the signs of bipolar disorder. Talk to them about what you’re experiencing. They may be able to provide you with support and help you recognize and manage your mood swings.
The sooner you find out what your symptoms might mean, the sooner you can learn to manage them. Although there are no lab tests for bipolar disorder, a licensed professional can discuss with you what you’re experiencing and help you improve your quality of your life.
Take the next step – Make the connection.
“I’m so much more productive now. The Veterans Recovery Center at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center really helped me get my bipolar symptoms under control."
Every day, Veterans connect with useful resources and effective treatments for dealing with bipolar disorder. If bipolar disorder is affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:
Your family doctor: Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does
A mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor
Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center: VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans
A spiritual or religious advisor
Explore these resources for more information about bipolar disorder in Veterans.
Learn more about bipolar disorder and how it can be related to other issues such as sleep problems, feeling on edge, family and relationships, jobs and employment, and depression.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
This support organization for people with bipolar and depression offers tools, information, and peer-based support.
NAMI Veterans Resource Center
The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides resources for helping Veterans and Service members find solutions for mental health issues that may be affecting them.
VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Bipolar disorder is best helped through professional treatment. This website will allow you to search for VA programs located near you. If you are eligible to receive care through the Veterans Health Administration, you can enroll in one of VA’s treatment programs.
If you are a combat Veteran or experienced any sexual trauma during your military service, bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist—many of whom are Veterans themselves—for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA.