Living Mindfully: Addiction and Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder and addictionOur next installment in our Living Mindfully series is recognizing the intersection between addiction and bipolar disorder. While bipolar disorder can be misunderstood, this disease impacts a large segment of the population who struggle with substance abuse. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2.6% of adults in the United States live with bipolar disorder—approximately 5.7 million people.

We know from industry research that 10.2 million adults struggle from co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders. Recognizing this trend, it’s critical that we understand the nuances of an addict’s experience and the root issues behind their behaviors. Consider the following characteristics of bipolar disorder and how this disease can relate to substance abuse.

Definition of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder expressed through drastic mood swings, from depression to manic behavior. The name “bipolar” comes from the disease’s notable “poles” of its high and low peaks in mood, exemplified through patterns ranging from intense aggression and agitation to deep apathy and paranoia. Bipolar disorder can develop anywhere from someone’s childhood to their 50’s, with a median age of onset at 25. Symptoms include changes in sleep patterns, unpredictable moods, and lack of energy, which may cause the person to feel sad, hopeless, and sluggish. Behaviors associated with this disease can drive devastating consequences, including highly risky behavior, impulsivity, hyperactivity, and suicidal tendencies.

Relationship with addiction

While statistics show that bipolar disorder is a very common disorder, one of the cautions about this disease is diagnosing too early or quickly. Some people may believe themselves to be living with bipolar disorder when they are actually just struggling with extreme emotions or temperaments, often escalated by the intensity of their dependence on drugs and alcohol.

When someone enters treatment, we find clearer understanding of underlying mental health issues once an addict is 1-2 months into sobriety. By removing the substances, we can isolate from chemical dependence and better interpret mental health concerns. When someone is truly struggling with a chemical imbalance, their serotonin levels will drop, driving their urge to relapse. For example, if someone is feeling an extreme “low,” they may crave meth to lift themselves out of depression. If someone feels an extreme “high” through a manic, reckless state, they may crave alcohol or opiates to calm down their system.

The problem is that neither of these options create a sustainable solution. Instead, the drugs magnify the symptoms of the disorder and spiral into more harmful patterns of behavior. By removing the drugs and alcohol, we can more accurately study someone’s mood swings and find healthier solutions to level their moods and help them achieve more balance.

Getting the help you need

Part of the challenge of treating an addict with bipolar disorder is the pride and vulnerability that are at play in someone’s own assessment of their behavior. Shame can trap someone into concealing their true emotions or past behaviors, worrying about the reality that they feel “out of control.”

As with other mental illnesses we’ve discussed, the most helpful approach an addict can take is through being an open, honest reporter of their history to their care team. Bipolar disorder doesn’t need to carry a stigma. This disorder is a treatable illness through therapy and medication. By identifying its symptoms, one can be better positioned in addiction treatment to get the help they need and find lasting change.

Do you know someone struggling with addiction and depression? Learn how untreated depression can increase someone’s struggle with substance abuse