Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition characterized by extreme shifts in mood and energy levels. People with bipolar disorder experience both depressive and manic episodes that can last for weeks or months at a time. These episodes are separated by periods of relatively stable mood and behavior called euthymia.
While the underlying cause of bipolar disorder is not fully understood, researchers believe it results from a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. One area of interest is identifying potential triggers that may lead to the onset of manic or depressive episodes in people with bipolar disorder.
What are the different types of bipolar disorder?
There are several different types of bipolar disorder:
- Bipolar I disorder involves extreme manic episodes that may involve psychotic symptoms. Depressive episodes are also common.
- Bipolar II disorder involves milder manic episodes called hypomania and major depressive episodes.
- Cyclothymic disorder involves fluctuating moods and hypomania symptoms that do not reach full manic intensity.
- Other specified and unspecified bipolar disorders are diagnostic terms used when symptoms do not precisely match the above categories.
While there are some differences between the types, bipolar I and II generally involve clear manic or hypomanic and depressive episodes separated by stable mood periods. Cyclothymic disorder and other specified forms involve more chronic, fluctuating mood symptoms.
What triggers bipolar episodes?
Bipolar episodes can sometimes occur without an identifiable cause. However, research shows that various factors may act as triggers and contribute to the onset of mania or depression in people with bipolar disorder:
Changing medications or dosages can trigger mood episodes in some cases. For example, antidepressants may trigger mania in bipolar disorder. Quickly stopping medication can also lead to instability.
Drug and alcohol use
Substance use disorders are common in people with bipolar disorder. Drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, and alcohol can all trigger manic symptoms. Withdrawal from substances can also trigger depression.
Getting too little sleep is linked to manic symptoms. Staying up all night working on projects is a classic sign of emerging mania. Lack of sleep can also worsen depression.
Stressful life events like a death in the family, divorce, job loss, or financial problems can trigger mood episodes. Even positive events like a new relationship, pregnancy, or promotion can be stressful.
Some research shows bipolar episodes may become more common during spring and summer. The increased sunlight and heat of summer can disrupt sleep and trigger mania in susceptible people.
Hormonal fluctuations related to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, or thyroid problems can trigger mood instability. Women with bipolar disorder tend to have more frequent episodes immediately after giving birth.
In addition to the general triggers above, some factors specifically provoke manic symptoms:
- Lack of sleep
- Drugs and alcohol
- High stress
- Caffeine and energy drinks
- Spring and summer seasons
Some triggers lead more often to depressive episodes:
- Drug/alcohol withdrawal
- Hormone changes
- Grief and loss
- Low light in fall/winter
- Stopping medications suddenly
- Postpartum period after giving birth
Can triggers be managed?
While bipolar disorder cannot be cured, many people are able to manage their symptoms and reduce episodes by identifying and avoiding triggers. Some tips include:
- Maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule
- Reducing alcohol and recreational drug use
- Managing stress through relaxation techniques, therapy, and support systems
- Taking medications consistently under a doctor’s care
- Making lifestyle changes to account for seasonal variations
- Seeking treatment for co-occurring conditions like substance use disorders
Monitoring your moods and behaviors can help detect early signs of an emerging episode. Working closely with a psychiatrist to make medication adjustments may help stabilize mood.
Psychotherapy can also help identify personal triggers and develop healthy coping strategies. Joining a bipolar support group provides community and accountability.
While avoiding triggers completely is difficult, being aware of potential risks and managing your lifestyle can help reduce the frequency and severity of bipolar episodes.
Common bipolar disorder triggers
Here is a table summarizing some of the most common potential triggers for bipolar episodes:
|Medications||Antidepressants, stopping meds suddenly, changing dosages|
|Drugs and alcohol||Cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol, withdrawal|
|Sleep||Not getting enough sleep, late nights|
|Stress||Major life events, chronic stress|
|Seasons||Changes in light exposure, heat, allergens|
|Hormones||Menstrual cycle, postpartum, thyroid dysfunction|
Tracking mood episodes and triggers
To identify personal bipolar triggers, it can be helpful to track your moods along with any associated events or factors. Here is an example mood tracking calendar:
|10/1||Depressed||5||Argument with partner|
|10/3||Manic||7||Stayed up late working|
|10/5||Stable||4||Got 8 hours sleep|
|10/7||Hypomanic||6||Drank coffee late|
Tracking moods day-to-day can reveal connections to potential triggers like sleep, arguments, or caffeine. This awareness empowers you to make lifestyle changes to better manage symptoms.
Tips for managing bipolar triggers
Here are some tips that may help in managing potential bipolar episode triggers:
- Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, even on weekends
- Avoid screens and stimulating activities before bed
- Limit caffeine, especially in the evenings
- Create a relaxing pre-bedtime routine
- Make your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet
- Avoid or limit alcohol and recreational drug use
- Be cautious with caffeine and energy drinks
- Talk to your doctor before changing medications or dosages
- Don’t abruptly stop taking prescribed medications
- Make time for relaxing activities each day
- Learn techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing
- Talk to a therapist or join a support group
- Improve time management and work-life balance
- Build a strong support system of friends and family
- Increase light exposure in winter, avoid excessive heat in summer
- Schedule demanding tasks for times of year when you are more stable
- Plan for supports like extra childcare help after giving birth
- Treat co-occurring conditions like thyroid disorders
When to seek professional help
See your doctor or mental health provider right away if you experience:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Symptoms of mania like reckless behavior, extreme energy, or racing thoughts
- Depression that makes it difficult to function
- Psychosis – losing touch with reality, hallucinations
- Unable to sleep for days at a time
Mood episodes that are more severe or long-lasting may require medication adjustments or hospitalization for your safety. Being aware of personal triggers is important, but professional treatment is key for managing bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder involves recurring episodes of mania and depression that can be influenced by various triggers. While triggers like sleep deprivation, drug use, seasonal changes, hormones, and stress do not directly cause bipolar disorder, they may contribute to episode onset in susceptible individuals.
Being aware of potential triggers and managing lifestyle factors like sleep and substance use can help reduce episode frequency and severity. However, professional treatment including medication management and psychotherapy is essential. Working closely with your doctor and therapist can help you manage triggers and live well with bipolar disorder.