By On July 9th, 2014

Correcting the Three Most Common Myths About Bipolar Disorder

There is not a single mental illness that is well-understood by the general public, though some are better understood than others. Depression sufferers get told on a regular basis to “just cheer up” as though they can talk themselves out of depression, but that is a relatively minor misunderstanding when compared to conditions such as bipolar disorder (typically depicted by minute-to-minute leaps between anger and friendly attitudes) or schizophrenia, which is most often entirely confused with a completely separate condition – dissociative identity disorder.

Of course, this isn’t in an attempt to create a hierarchy of illnesses, all are serious and the misunderstandings and wrongly held beliefs about mental illness are damaging to everyone who has experienced an illness of the mind.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of myths that need to be cleared up, and bipolar disorder has more than its share of myths and misconceptions, ranging from simple misunderstandings such as “you need to experience a depressive episode in order to be diagnosed” to more dangerous beliefs that completely influence how individuals work to manage their own condition.

Margarita Tartakovsky, associate editor for PsychCentral, recently discussed these myths and explained why your understanding of bipolar disorder may not be accurate.

1. Myth: Episodes of Bipolar Disorder are Beyond Your Control

It is common to encounter patients who believe there is nothing that can be done to minimize the illness’s impact on their life. But, the truth is, bipolar disorder can be managed to various extents by practicing healthy habits. For instance, sleep deprivation and substance abuse are both known to exacerbate bipolar disorder, and simply practicing more regulated sleep and abstinence from drugs and alcohol can significantly lessen the severity of episodes.

“The more people can identify their triggers and patterns — [such as] that they’re more likely to become depressed in the fall or that sleep deprivation tends to trigger mania — the more effective they’ll be at managing their illness,” Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, told Tartakovsky.

Beyond healthy living habits, there are also practices such as breathing exercises that can help with coping with other symptoms and struggles of bipolar disorder, such as avoiding anxiety.

2. Myth: Medication Makes You Feel “Like a Zombie”

This myth is widely believed in relation to all psychiatric medications, but bipolar disorder medications are especially notorious for supposedly stifling creativity and blunting emotions. But, while this can occur, it is not the intended effects of the medication. In fact, those types of feelings are generally a sign that the wrong medication is being prescribed or in the wrong dosage.

Finding the right dosage and medication is currently a trial and effort process. “We know what works for groups of people in general, under extremely rigid (research) circumstances, but I never know what’s going to work in any one individual sitting in front of me,” Kelli Hyland, M.D., said. “Understanding that it’s a process and that even mistrials or struggles with meds offer us important information and direction.”

Aside from this problem, there is also the question of whether individuals are truly feeling numb or simply experiencing less emotional swings. “[I]t can be a real adjustment, often uncomfortable, even if they feel better in a lot of ways, to [feel] more stable emotionally than they’re used to or even might like.”

3. Myth: It’s OK to Stop Taking Meds When You Don’t Feel Like You Need It

The long time that can occur between manic episodes often creates a false sense of safety for bipolar disorder patients. Unfortunately, that also creates the misconception that they don’t need their medicine any longer.

“[Patients] may believe they are ‘cured,’ that they won’t have another episode or if they do, they can handle it,” Hyland said.

The feeling of stability in between manic episodes can also allow individuals to feel like they can think their way out of episodes, or they might forget how severe they can really be. But, stopping your medication without the help of the prescribing physician can be incredibly dangerous. As noted by John Preston, PsyD, “Bipolar disorder is probably the main psychiatric disorder where medication is absolutely essential.”

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