Bipolar Mood Disorders

Do you go through intense moods?

Do you feel very happy and energized some days, and very sad and depressed on other days? Do these moods last for a week or more? Do your mood changes make it hard to sleep, stay focused, or go to work?

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a serious brain illness. It is also called manic-depressive illness or manic depression. People with bipolar disorder go through unusual mood changes. Sometimes they feel very happy and "up," and are much more energetic and active than usual. This is called a manic episode. Sometimes people with bipolar disorder feel very sad and "down," have low energy, and are much less active. This is called depression or a depressive episode.

Bipolar disorder is not the same as the normal ups and downs everyone goes through. The mood swings are more extreme than that and are accompanied by changes in sleep, energy level, and the ability to think clearly. Bipolar symptoms are so strong that they can damage relationships and make it hard to go to school or keep a job. They can also be dangerous. Some people with bipolar disorder try to hurt themselves or attempt suicide.

People with bipolar disorder can get treatment. With help, they can get better and lead successful lives.

Who develops bipolar disorder?

Anyone can develop bipolar disorder. It often starts in a person's late teen or early adult years. But children and older adults can have bipolar disorder too. The illness usually lasts a lifetime.

Why does someone develop bipolar disorder?

Doctors do not know what causes bipolar disorder, but several things may contribute to the illness. Family genes may be one factor because bipolar disorder sometimes runs in families. However, it is important to know that just because someone in your family has bipolar disorder, it does not mean other members of the family will have it as well. Another factor that may lead to bipolar disorder is the brain structure or the brain function of the person with the disorder. Scientists are finding out more about the disorder by studying it. This research may help doctors do a better job of treating people. Also, this research may help doctors to predict whether a person will get bipolar disorder. One day, doctors may be able to prevent the illness in some people.

What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?

Bipolar "mood episodes" include unusual mood changes along with unusual sleep habits, activity levels, thoughts, or behavior. People may have manic episodes, depressive episodes, or "mixed" episodes. A mixed episode has both manic and depressive symptoms. These mood episodes cause symptoms that last a week or two or sometimes longer. During an episode, the symptoms last every day for most of the day.

Mood episodes are intense. The feelings are strong and happen along with extreme changes in behavior and energy levels.

People having a manic episode may:

  • Feel very "up" or "high"
  • Feel "jumpy" or "wired"
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Become more active than usual
  • Talk really fast about a lot of different things
  • Be agitated, irritable, or "touchy"
  • Feel like their thoughts are going very fast
  • Think they can do a lot of things at once
  • Do risky things, like spend a lot of money or have reckless sex
People having a depressive episode may:

  • Feel very "down" or sad
  • Sleep too much or too little
  • Feel like they can't enjoy anything
  • Feel worried and empty
  • Have trouble concentrating
  • Forget things a lot
  • Eat too much or too little
  • Feel tired or "slowed down"
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Think about death or suicide
Can someone have bipolar disorder along with other problems?

Yes. Sometimes people having very strong mood episodes may have psychotic symptoms. Psychosis affects thoughts and emotions as well as a person's ability to know what is real and what is not. People with mania and psychotic symptoms may believe they are rich and famous, or have special powers. People with depression and psychotic symptoms may believe they have committed a crime, they have lost all of their money, or that their lives are ruined in some other way.

Sometimes behavior problems go along with mood episodes. A person may drink too much or take drugs. Some people take a lot of risks, like spending too much money or having reckless sex. These problems can damage lives and hurt relationships. Some people with bipolar disorder have trouble keeping a job or doing well in school.

Is bipolar disorder easy to diagnose? No. Some people have bipolar disorder for years before the illness is diagnosed. This is because bipolar symptoms may seem like several different problems. Family and friends may notice the symptoms but not realize they are part of a bigger problem. A doctor may think the person has a different illness, like schizophrenia or depression.

People with bipolar disorder often have other health problems as well. This may make it hard for doctors to recognize the bipolar disorder. Examples of other illnesses include substance abuse, anxiety disorders, thyroid disease, heart disease, and obesity.

How is bipolar disorder treated?

Right now, there is no cure for bipolar disorder, but treatment can help control symptoms. Most people can get help for mood changes and behavior problems. Steady, dependable treatment works better than treatment that starts and stops. Treatment options include:

1. Medication. There are several types of medication that can help. People respond to medications in different ways, so the type of medication depends on the patient. Sometimes a person needs to try different medications to see which works best.
Medications can cause side effects. Patients should always tell their doctors about these problems. Also, patients should not stop taking a medication without a doctor's help. Stopping medication suddenly can be dangerous, and it can make bipolar symptoms worse.

2. Therapy. Different kinds of psychotherapy, or "talk" therapy, can help people with bipolar disorder. Therapy can help them change their behavior and manage their lives. It can also help patients get along better with family and friends. Sometimes therapy includes family members.

3. Other treatments. Some people do not get better with medication and therapy. These people may try electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. This is sometimes called "shock" therapy. ECT provides a quick electric current that can sometimes correct problems in the brain.

Sometimes people take herbal and natural supplements, such as St. John's wort or omega-3 fatty acids. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplement. Scientists aren't sure how these products affect people with bipolar disorder. Some people may also need sleep medications during treatment.

The following is a truncated version of my doctoral research into parenting issues experienced by mothers of children diagnosed with Bipolar Mood Disorder.

"The Lived Experience of Mothering a Child Diagnosed with Bipolar Mood Disorder." Pamela French-Stern, Ph.D. My research into the experience of parenting a child diagnosed with BP revealed the existence of feelings of ambivalence, personal loses, and effective adaptations to prior, ineffective parenting techniques.


Mother's experience ambivalence and personal losses while parenting their children. This is seen as a common thread throughout the published research of similar studies. Parent's experience of raising a children diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder can be described as a"love/hate" of the child which is emotionally painful but also comes with a sense of commitment and hope as many parents feel as though the difficult struggle is worth the effort.

Personal Losses

Mothers of children diagnosed with Bipolar Mood Disorder experience personal losses in the prior sense of normalcy in their family life, of previously effective parenting techniques, and losing control over their own emotions. Preconceived plans for her child's rites of passage are repeatedly derailed due to insurmountable emotional obstacles encountered by her child. Mothers experience frustration in these situations when they are unable to control their child's behavior, despite repeated attempts and feel powerless to confront her child about poor behavior or implement appropriate discipline out of fear of destabilizing her child. This dynamic leaves mothers without an avenue to resolution of her feelings regarding numerous occurrences of misconduct by her child. For mothers parenting children diagnosed with Bipolar Mood Disorder these struggles combine to create a feeling of powerlessness which is a strong characteristic overshadowing how mothering is impacted by her child's bipolar symptoms.

Many mothers find themselves unwillingly submitting to their child's wishes as one way of preventing risky and out-of-control behavior subsequently contributing to their own loss of control rendering them unable to process their emotional experience due to the forced constriction of family communications.

Mothers of children diagnosed with Bipolar Mood Disorder either implicitly or explicitly discussed feelings of helplessness, frustration, and guilt as well as a deep sense of loss, grief, and chronic sadness. The participants knew that their child was not functioning normally in any area of their life and the participants were very concerned about their child's ability to function and survive in the future.

Caregiver Burden

Many mothers' experience of ambivalence and personal losses related to parenting a child diagnosed with BP may combine to be burdensome but the participants never used the word "burden" to speak of their mothering experience. This sense of burden refers, in large part to issues related to time management, finances, and being emotionally overwhelmed.

Care-giving refers to the activities and experiences involved in providing help and assistance to those who are unable to provide for themselves. Caregiver burden refers to the caregiver's perception of activities and stressors experienced due to care-giving activities. My research indicates that there is an unexplained component of parenting a child diagnosed with Bipolar Mood Disorder wherein participants create highly adaptive parenting techniques and experience character transformation which influences perceptions of activities and stressors so that they indeed engage in "care-giving" with a lower level of caregiver burden.

Mothering Adaptations

Much of the research on the topic of parenting a child with various types of special needs, whether it is physical or emotional focuses on the negative impact realized by the parents. This research unexpectedly revealed significant positive innovations flowing out from the experience of parenting a child diagnosed with Bipolar Mood Disorder.

Although a mother is impacted negatively by the consequences of her child's Bipolar Mood presentation, she also experiences and initiates several highly adaptive and creative problem-solving strategies which results in a solidification of her strength of character, improved coping mechanisms, and expressed creativity in her mothering activities. Within the experience of parenting a child diagnosed with BP there is a profound opportunity for adaptation and development of personal strength of character. Though challenging, many mothers are able to walk through their fear, self-doubt, and sense of powerlessness in order to navigate repeated chaotic situations, and when necessary put themselves at risk when their child's well-being is in jeopardy.

Mothers who were researched also developed the strength to separate their child from the BP diagnosis, choosing to see the diagnosis as a common enemy against which she and her child will struggle in order to find a peaceful co-existence. This shift in perspective creates a sense of empowerment and the recognition of her capability to successfully navigate the myriad of challenges experienced while parenting her child.


The tendency within the research literature is to focus primarily on the negative experiences of parenting children with various challenges rather than exploring the entire parenting experience. Specifically within this research which focused on how a child's BP presentation impacted mothering within a specific event, the mothering experience is of utmost importance due to the irrefutable influence creative experiences and expressions can have in the lives of those mothers whose parenting is impacted by BP.

Creativity takes many forms and therefore has varied definitions in the psychological literature but for the purpose of this research the notion of everyday creativity as well as heightened levels of creativity within first degree relatives of patients with BP was of particular interest.

Everyday Creativity

The construct of everyday creativity is defined in terms of human originality at work and leisure across the diverse activities of everyday life. It is seen as central to human survival, and, to some extent, it is (and must be) found in everyone. Because everyday creativity is not just about what one does, but also how, creative process as well as product are observed (Richards, 2010). To reemphasize the point, everyday creativity is not only about product but is also about process, about how one does a task. Many things that we do each day appear common, prosaic, and seemingly uneventful. Yet not only is this unnecessary, but we can live better if we use conscious creative approaches, meeting each situation afresh in our lives, from the meals we create to how we organize things at the office (Richards, 2007). Perhaps out of a sense of necessity everyday creativity may be developed to a greater degree in relatives of people diagnosed with BP.

Creativity, whether everyday or heightened, can be a moving force behind a mother's ability to discover and implement open-ended problem solving strategies.

Open-Ended Problem Solving

Open-ended problem solving proved to be an essential coping technique present within the experience of parenting a child diagnosed with BP. The purpose seems to be a way for mothers to attempt to fulfill their vision of an ideal family life and mothering experience. Open-ended problem-solving is reflective of creativity and seems to be an extension of everyday creativity, heightened by genetics and the unique environment created by parenting a child diagnosed with BP.

Creativity allows a mother to discover unexpected avenues to positive, non-threatening communication with her child; pathways which are less likely to destabilize her child's mood and also utilize the emotional vulnerability which occurs during episodes of her child's mood instability as opportunities for positive interventions and relationship healing.

In conclusion, feelings of ambivalence and personal losses negatively impacted the mothers in this study. My research unexpectedly discovered a significant adaptive and creative component present within the challenging experience of mothering a child diagnosed with BP. Effective adaptations to prior, ineffective parenting techniques encapsulates a family of positive coping skills which seem to work together to lower the level of caregiver burden. A solidification of her strength of character, resilience, and ability to problem solve in creative ways which allowed her to manage her ambivalence, re-envision her pre-conceived ideas of her mothering role and make sense of this challenge.

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