Understanding and Treating Bipolar: 7 Myths and Realities

Teenage Girl on SwingMany people loosely use the term to describe the mood swings of hormonal teenagers, and some even use it to describe the weather. Bipolar, as seen in the aforementioned examples, remains one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions. Most confusion is the result of misinformation, but media sources such as movies, news, and television have also played a prominent role in mislabeling it.

Lack of understanding and awareness can lead to stigmatization of this serious condition, which may prevent people from getting the treatment they need to make their lives better and more manageable.

Let’s debunk some of the most common misconceptions by examining seven common myths about bipolar:

Myth: Bipolar isn’t a real condition. It’s just mood swings!

Fact: Bipolar is far more complex than the normal ups and downs of daily life. Bipolar can cause extreme changes in mood, sleep patterns, and energy levels. The mood swings associated with bipolar can be quite severe and can often interfere with a person’s ability to function. What sets these mood swings apart from typical mood changes are their frequency and intensity.

Individuals affected by bipolar usually experience extreme variance in mood ranging from major depression (extreme fatigue, sadness, and listlessness) to mania (euphoria, high energy, decreased need for sleep).

Bipolar is a very real and chronic condition, and a person who experiences it cannot just “snap out of it.” Similar to a lifelong medical condition such as diabetes, bipolar requires ongoing treatment and maintenance.

Myth: Bipolar is a rare mental health issue.

Fact: It’s not as rare as you might think. Four out of every 100 adults in the United States is said to have experienced bipolar. The condition affects about 5.7 million American adults each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Teens and children can be affected as well, although statistics paint an inaccurate picture considering that many children go undiagnosed.

Myth: There is a test that can determine if someone is bipolar.

Fact: Currently, there isn’t any physiological test that can provide a 100% accurate bipolar diagnosis. There is, however, a test that can determine if you have a genetic predisposition to the condition. This test evaluates saliva samples for mutations of the GRK3 gene that is associated with bipolar, but it provides no certainty that a person has or will develop the condition.

Bipolar is caused by a number of genetic and environmental factors. Genes play a role, but they are not the sole cause. Identical twins share the same genes, but if one is diagnosed as bipolar, 30% of the time the twin will not exhibit symptoms of the condition.

Psychological evaluation is currently the only method of diagnosing someone with bipolar.

Myth: The manic phase is better than the depressive phase.

Fact: While the manic phase is often characterized by euphoria or elevated mood, it is not necessarily a desired state. Mania is not always euphoric, either. Many manic individuals experience elevated mood in the form of irritability and edginess. Even when the mood is euphoric, it often brings with it side effects. A person experiencing mania may lose all sense of control, experience chronic insomnia, and have difficulty concentrating. The manic phase can quickly shift from euphoric to frightening, with the affected person having intense delusions and losing touch with reality.

Mania can be dangerous if left untreated. The trouble is that many people experiencing mania do not realize there is a problem. They simply attribute their symptoms to having a good mood and do not typically seek treatment until symptoms become severe.

Myth: Bipolar is experienced only by adults.

Fact: Bipolar occurs in children, adolescents, and teens, though it is often more difficult to diagnose in younger people. It can be challenging to diagnose children with bipolar, as all children are likely to have emotional outbursts and tantrums, especially at a young age.

The median age of onset of bipolar is 25. While it often takes this long to receive an actual diagnosis, many report having symptoms prior to the age of 18.

Myth: Bipolar is a single identifiable condition.

Fact: No two individuals with bipolar experience the exact same symptoms. There are several different ways the condition can manifest. Bipolar is an umbrella term used to label a wide range of subtypes of the condition. Four different types of bipolar are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

In order to be diagnosed as bipolar I, a person must have had at least one manic episode in their life. Bipolar II occurs when a person experiences major depression as well as bouts of hypomania, a form of elevated mood that is not as extreme as full-blown mania. Cyclothymia is characterized by at least two years of episodes of depressive and hypomanic symptoms. Lastly, bipolar not otherwise specified (BD-NOS) is the category for all other instances of the condition that do not fit into the other categories.

Myth: Individuals who have bipolar can’t live a typical life.

Fact: Although there is no cure for the condition, people who have bipolar are usually able to control their symptoms through treatment and live happy, fulfilling lives. Many people experiencing bipolar have families and raise children. They accomplish goals and contribute to society like anyone else. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sinead O’Connor are names you might recognize. These successful entertainers have all sought treatment for bipolar.

Fact: Treatment can help manage the experience of bipolar.

Living with bipolar can be a challenge, but it is a challenge that many are able to overcome with proper management and active treatment.

In addition to psychotherapy and medication regimens, there are many lifestyle adjustments individuals experiencing bipolar can make to help alleviate and improve symptoms. These include eating a nutritious diet, getting restful sleep, exercising or being physically active, and paying attention to the warning signs of mania and depression.

If you are experiencing symptoms of bipolar, consider finding a therapist who can help you better understand the condition and work with you to create solutions to any challenges and difficulties you may experience in your personal and professional life as a result of it.

References:

  1. Bledsoe, A. (2012, May 7). Common Misconceptions about bipolar disorder. Everyday Health. Retrieved from http://www.everydayhealth.com/health-report/bipolar-depression/bipolar-misconceptions.aspx
  2. Doheny, Kathleen. (2008, August 1). 8 myths about bipolar disorder. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/bipolar-/features/8-myths-about-bipolar-?page=4
  3. Sandhu, R. (2015). 4 misconceptions about bipolar that need to be smashed. International Bipolar Foundation. Retrieved from http://ibpf.org/blog/4-misconceptions-about-bipolar-need-be-smashed
  4. Youngstrom, E. (2012, October 23). Myths and realities about bipolar disorder. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2012/10/bipolar-.aspx

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  • Cherri

    Cherri

    August 10th, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    tHese are all the misconceptions that we have all faced, those of us who live with bipolar on a day to day basis. Thank you so much for offering these clarifications, because with this hopefully will come a greater understanding of the illness and the issue.

  • Dane

    Dane

    August 11th, 2015 at 4:01 AM

    Do people not realize just how belittling it can be to have other people tell them that their disease isn’t real, that they are just making it up to suit their “moods”?

  • rgan

    rgan

    August 11th, 2015 at 11:28 AM

    If this was something that was ever accurately portrayed in any fictional situation then I think that there would be more people who actually have a better understanding. But the story lines that I always see only play into the myths and perpetuate the stereotypes that have been around for a long time. Until we start being honest with what this looks like there will always be these myths and challenges to overcome.

  • Laura

    Laura

    August 11th, 2015 at 10:34 PM

    Key things to understand: It is treatable, but it takes a holistic approach, no one treatment takes care of all of its symptoms. As any other condition, being able to accept the diagnosis, and being open to treament is necessary to overcome it.

  • Landry

    Landry

    August 12th, 2015 at 10:33 AM

    I am kind of surprised to learn that this is actually as common as it is.
    I guess I thought that this was something that was not that common but it looks like there are probably way more people struggling with this than I may have understood to be the case/.
    Certainly opens my eyes a little more and will hopefully make me more understanding of that which I often fail to even see or comprehend.

  • Victoria

    Victoria

    August 12th, 2015 at 4:41 PM

    Another myth is that all bipolar people are violent and homicidal.

  • Bean

    Bean

    August 13th, 2015 at 1:00 PM

    My husband has also referred to my bipolar as a crutch and excuse. It’s not. I would give anything to not be bipolar. I wish people would talk about the environmental aspect of bipolar.

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    August 12th, 2015 at 4:58 PM

    My husband says I use this as a crutch. It’s not!!

  • James

    James

    August 12th, 2015 at 6:59 PM

    I would add medication is not always effective. I was on every listed medicine as of four and a half years ago and finally due to the constant increase in weight due to many if those medicines as well as an inability to afford the medication and continue on with college and a normal life style.
    Changes in diet, regular exercise, along woth other recommendations from my doctor have actually lead to a much healthier my both physically and mentally.

  • Linda

    Linda

    August 12th, 2015 at 11:49 PM

    This is very much my story too….I now have a strict supplement regimen, clean diet and exercise daily. It’s also important to have a few good people around you who understand what is going on for you. For next these people are a lifeline. They are not medical professionals, just friends who know what me behaviour really means and are able to accommodate me in this respect

  • Ellen

    Ellen

    August 13th, 2015 at 3:00 AM

    Here here …im much the same the weight gains depressed me and i couldnt fuction on most of the meds….i follow a 12 step programe type thing …..rest …diet exersice talking staying away from all things negative and more …with this i manage to maintain a balance

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    August 13th, 2015 at 3:50 AM

    I’ve been thinking of coming off the medicine. Can’t afford and I’ve gained weight again. I’ve been dealing with this for 2.5 years. My first doctor wanted to do shock treatments because nothing was working. My new doctor has me on meds but they are so expensive. On top of all this I lost my job just after coming back from FMLA. It’s a snowball effect. I can’t seem to stop it from rolling and becoming bigger.

  • Rachel

    Rachel

    August 12th, 2015 at 9:07 PM

    I am so sick of people assuming that mania equals happy (not a comment about this particular piece–just a comment). It is high energy that can be manifested in many ways, for example out of control rage. I don’t hear much talk about anger and rage which makes it really hard to not feel completely alone in this diagnosis. Also, in addition to depression and mania, there is also the mixed state which again I rarely hear people share their experiences with. I have very rapid cycling bipolar and my most common mood state is mixed. If I am manic, I am usually caught up in attacks of rage or I am psychotic. It is written here and in so many many other places that this is a treatable disease. It makes it sound so easy. I cannot find a single medicine or combination that works or that I don’t have a severe reaction to. I was able to work despite the disease until a year ago when my ability to function just left. I wish people would write more about these things instead of trying to sugar-coat things in an effort to end the stigma. If all the facts aren’t out there, some of us are hurt by the feelings of isolation that brings. Thanks.

  • Andy

    Andy

    August 13th, 2015 at 3:32 PM

    Well said and I agree. I’m in a similar situation and have tried meds which made me ill. The rage and psychotic desires. I’m disassociated with society now and being a hermit to avoid any problems occurring. What a life. Stick with it though. We’ll have a good times and bad.

  • Beverly

    Beverly

    November 9th, 2015 at 6:02 AM

    You are right my husband is bipolar and he has rages e can turn on a dime he start cussing and hitting people he has angry that just pops out of nowhere then after all that is over hejust walks away he takes meds but side effects are worst then the doctor change it I have lived with him 21years he has up and downs depression and rages sometimes I am very scared of him but it is a battle I hope one day they can understand this better when you live with a person this long you learn more then the doctor

  • Amy

    Amy

    January 11th, 2016 at 2:52 PM

    I experience the mixed state as well which feeds my anxiety. If I have a normal person’s “good” day I question whether I’m cycling into a manic phase. I’m on a regime of drugs that seem to lessen some of the worst symptoms. But its taken 20+ years of trying meds that don’t work to get to this point. And I still have horrible bottom of the pit depression days.

  • Patty

    Patty

    August 13th, 2015 at 10:43 AM

    Thank you so much for this
    I found a whole lot of ideas in this article of things that I didn’t know too much about. my mom got diagnosed bipolar 2 so this was good.

  • Diane

    Diane

    August 13th, 2015 at 2:46 PM

    This ones for you Mom. You can’t beat someone normal

  • Katrina

    Katrina

    August 14th, 2015 at 12:28 PM

    Hey I want you to know I understand what you been through I went through that also. I had resentment in my heart towards my family for not being there for me and making me feel like I could control my emotions. But I had to let it go so I could heal and I learned to accept myself and my illness. God bless you

  • William

    William

    August 13th, 2015 at 8:39 PM

    My gf is bipolar and I may be but have yet to find out. I always had a false idea of what bipolar was. The word got thrown around so much growing up. I now understand so much more of the struggle. It’s been hard, very hard, living with my gf at times. But I love her and will be there for her. Thank you to all of you for not giving up. The disease is real and is not a crutch or an excuse.

  • liesl

    liesl

    August 14th, 2015 at 7:39 AM

    Lack of understanding is simply no excuse for belittling the feelings and pain that another person is dealing with

  • Katrina

    Katrina

    August 14th, 2015 at 12:23 PM

    Hey :-)
    Thanks for clarifying this illness. I am diagnosised with moderate bipolar. It has been extremely hard for me to function as a mom wife student and employee. I’ve tried so many medications and none work. Ive battled this diagnosis since I was 15 and at 25 that’s when I realized that I couldn’t control the way God made me. I use to get abused verbally emotionally sexually and physically as a child. I really believed I could be a good girl but endured so much pain because I didn’t have control over my emotions. I believe God made doctor’s to care but ultimately healing is between God and the patient. Jesus is my strength and I know he loves me the way I am. Since I developed a relationship with him I have been able to control my impulses and mood swings. So I encourage anyone in my shoes to seek medical treatment but also God. Blessings everyone I love you.

  • Susan

    Susan

    November 9th, 2015 at 7:52 PM

    Amen! 🙌🏻

  • Frank

    Frank

    August 16th, 2015 at 10:58 AM

    I feel like for many years I did not understand this with my wife and I am ashamed to say that we probably lost our marriage over my unwillingness to feel more for her

  • Mark

    Mark

    August 17th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    My wife has struggled with bipolar for years. In the beginning I didn’t understand the illness and we struggled in our relationship. After much research, I now understand that her behavior is not a character flaw or personal attack on me. While difficult at times, this understanding gives me great calmness despite her anger and irritability. She is not on her meds currently and refuses to take them and acknowledge that she has an illness which is making it very difficult. I have tried repeatedly to get her to her doctor but she refuses. She is having severe psychotic delusions currently and is steadfast in her beliefs. Very difficult to deal with. I have spoken to many but don’t know where else to turn as she is unwilling to help herself.

  • Susan

    Susan

    January 10th, 2016 at 4:21 PM

    I am a facilitator for NAMI Family Support group. The support group, along with NAMI Family to Family class are so helpful. They help me with my son and with my several friends who are Bipolar.
    See if there are NAMI programs in your area. We also have Peer to Peer programs for people who have a mental illness.

  • vicky

    vicky

    September 5th, 2015 at 10:11 PM

    I 100 % agree with Rachael, that manic episodes aren’t always depicted accurately…mine are intense periods of “raging” that are triggered by about a million things mostly insecurities, jealousy and issues stemming from an abusive of childhood. I can cycle several times a day and can honestly say I have never had an “up” manic episode. I spend most of my time depressed or dysregulated and suicidal.

  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    November 9th, 2015 at 5:03 AM

    I myself don’t understand my own bipolar. I suffer from PTSD,bipolar,and major depression. I’ve tried alot of meds but I’m very bad at continuing them. I feel better and stop. Life with these disorders are hard. My relationships suffer and trying to raise my children has been difficult. I feel at times I’m not even present. People tell me I live in a delusional world. My med doesn’t help. And some days the depression is so bad you can’t pick your head off your pillow. No one understands my Crazy ways. But somehow I do!

  • Jan

    Jan

    March 25th, 2016 at 4:36 PM

    Not every person with bipolar disorder had the extreme manic highs. Bipolar 2 is even more misunderstood because it does not have the wide mood swings. With bipolar II, folks experience hypomanic episodes where the manic phase is not as extreme. The accompanying depression is deep, seeming unrelenting. The depression is thought to be much deeper and darker than with major depressive disorder. However bipolar II is often misdiagnosed as major depression, chronic. It is vital that this be considered. Sometimes antidepressant medication can exacerbate the symptoms. I was misdiagnosed for years.

  • Josh

    Josh

    January 30th, 2017 at 12:10 AM

    Great article! I was Dx with bipolar 1 approximately 4 years ago, after living with it for pretty much 10 years beforehand. The past few years have been bliss, even in spite of the weight gain, loss of energy and other side effects of taking meds. It needs more than meds to manage this. I suggest that people utilitise a bio-psycho- social approach. Too often I hear people jump on the merry go round of adding Med after med, and end up worse than beginning. I utilise mindfulness and interpersonal -social rhythm to foster as much awareness and balance in my life, and learning not just about the illness but about yourself, including your own personal vulnerabilities. Through doing my career, my relationships and overall happiness has thrived. I have experienced the darkest depressions, the psychotic delusions( I have believed that I was possessed in 2 manic phases, but my overly zealous Christian parents actually thought I was possessed. This was apparently more Believable than the fact that I have a mental illness) and the overwhelming confusion and chaos that this illness wrecks on your life. But there is hope!!

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