People with bipolar disorder don’t have a monopoly on irritability or anger but they often get a good share of these unpleasant emotions. People become irritable because they get frustrated. Irritability and anger are also common signs of mood disturbance in depression, but they also accompany hypomania, mania and mixed states. If that isn’t enough, they can even loiter as a residual symptom between episodes.
Living with someone who is snappy and critical is no easy thing. Sometimes there may be uncertainty as to whether an expression of anger directly relates to a situation or event or whether it is actually a warning symptom of illness. In more established relationships it often becomes easier for both parties to determine what certain moods might mean and how to defuse the situation.
People with bipolar disorder often have quite specific things that trigger an irritable mood. Noisy children, home finances, traffic, situations at work are examples. People without bipolar may see these examples as things that upset them, but they probably won’t experience the same depth or intensity of emotion.
An angry person can, of course, say and do any number of things that result in immense hurt to others. Understanding and intellectualizing what is happening helps up to a point, but it isn’t easy being attacked by the one you love. Similarly, apologies can go so far in helping to heal some of the wounds but emotional scarring is a frequent long-term side effect. If only for this reason, a few basic coping strategies can be helpful for both people. Examples are:
- Avoiding things, such as alcohol, that may trigger irritation.
- Not responding to a provocative situation or comments.
- Walking away from a situation before it escalates.
- Distracting yourself with something (music, a walk) until you feel more able to face a situation.
- Finding ways to express your feelings in order to reduce their intensity and focus. Exercise, counseling, writing or art help some people.
Taking the heat out of a situation before it goes too far is a reasonable course of action for anyone to consider. Of course self-management can only go so far and if anger is a feature of developing symptoms then medical treatment is likely to be required.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.