True or False? The Top 10 Myths About Bipolar Disorder
Expert Patient John McManamy gives you the real story.
Like many mental illnesses, the commentary surrounding bipolar disorder is saturated with myths–it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not. Below you’ll find the real story, from our Expert Patient John McManamy.
- Everyone has their ups and downs, so mine aren’t that serious.
Yes, everyone has good days and bad days, but when these ups and downs seriously interfere with your ability to work, relate to others and function effectively, it is advisable to seek out a psychiatrist.
- Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder.
Half true. Bipolar disorder certainly affects mood, but it also affects cognition and the ability to perform mental tasks. Some days we can out-think Stephen Hawking. Other days we make Forrest Gump look like an intellectual.
- Yes, but bipolar disorder is still a mood disorder.
Granted, but for most of us it is also part of a package deal that may include anxiety, substance and alcohol abuse and sleep disorders. Also, researchers are finding smoking guns linking the illness to heart disease, migraines and other physical ailments.
- Bipolar disorder is characterized by mood swings ranging from severely depressed to wildly manic.
Not necessarily. Most people with bipolar disorder are depressed far more often than they are manic. Often, the manias are so subtle that they are overlooked by both patient and psychiatrist, resulting in misdiagnosis. People with bipolar disorder can also enter long periods of remission.
- Mania is like being on top of the world–if you could only put it in a bottle and sell it.
You wouldn’t want to with most manias. True, some forms of mild mania are characterized by feelings of elation, but other types have road rage features built in. More severe mania turns up the heat, resulting in different kinds of out-of-control behavior that can ruin your career, relationships and reputation.
- Bipolar disorder is caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain.
This is the simpler explanation–what you tell your family and friends. What you need to know is our genes, biology and life experience make us extremely sensitive to stress. Various stressors, such as personal relationships and financial worries, have the potential to trigger a mood episode if not effectively nipped in the bud.
- Medications are all you need to combat bipolar disorder.
False. While medications are the foundation of treatment for bipolar disorder, recovery is problematic without a good lifestyle regimen (diet, exercise and sleep), effective coping skills and a support network. People with bipolar disorder also benefit from various forms of talking therapy and religious/spiritual practice.
- Medications don’t work for me.
For some people this may be true, but we all need to give our meds a chance. Treatment guidelines anticipate initial failures, and while no two guidelines are in agreement they are all based on the premise that eventually you will find a medication or combination of medications that will help you.
- Lower quality of life and sluggish cognition are fair trade-offs for reducing mood symptoms.
False, big time. In the initial phase of treatment, meds overkill may be justified to bring your illness under control. But full recovery is based on improving your overall health and ability to function, not just eliminating mood symptoms. Over time, the side effects of medication tend to go away, so patience is advised. You may choose to live with minor side effects such as mild hand tremors. But if major side effects persist, you should work with your psychiatrist in adjusting doses or switching to different meds. The onus is on you to alert your psychiatrist to major side effects and to insist he or she take appropriate action.
- Once you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you can forget about leading a normal life.
False. Living with bipolar disorder is a challenge, and you may have to change your expectations, but you should never give up on living a rewarding and productive life.
John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.