Stop Normalizing Bipolar Symptoms!

symptoms of mania and depression

Something that I have noticed on social media over the past few years is the normalization of the symptoms of mania and depression. It is usually motivated by the desire to “raise awareness” or help foster compassion for people that are experiencing the symptoms. Awareness can be beneficial if it helps people recognize the symptoms in themselves or others so that they can get help, but normalizing the symptoms is different.

To normalize something is to “make it normal and natural in everyday life”; should we normalize bipolar symptoms?

Is It Normal?

If I had been able to see people normalizing bipolar symptoms 13 years ago it might have felt validating for me and it would have made me feel less alone. At that time, I believed the best I could expect out of my life with bipolar disorder was learning how to suffer well with it. After 12 years of trying dozens of different medications prescribed by my doctors, hospitalizations, electroconvulsive therapy and suicide attempts I had resigned myself to an existence of just surviving life.

Experience had taught me that no matter how hard I tried, or what medication I took, I would always suffer helplessly on the manic-depressive rollercoaster. The idea of helping people understand what I was going through and asking them to have compassion for me when I was compulsive and irrational would have been very appealing. 

Over the past fourteen years, however, my understanding of bipolar has changed. In 2010 I found the first tool on the road to wellness. My doctor and I found a micronutrient treatment that helped my brain begin to heal. Over the following decade I started finding other tools to continue the healing process and I eventually discovered that I could recover completely. 

Once I recognized that it was possible to heal, I realized that normalizing bipolar symptoms is actually very detrimental to those who are living with it. 

A Mind in Distress

Bipolar symptoms are information, they are indications of a mind in distress. We don’t normalize the symptoms of other illnesses, so why do we do it with bipolar?

If someone consistently ran high fevers you wouldn’t seek to normalize that because you didn’t want to make the person feel bad. That would be ridiculous! You would recognize that there is something wrong with the body. It is in distress and needs treatment to identify and address the underlying cause of the symptoms.

The same should be true for bipolar symptoms of mania and depression. They are indications that the mind is in distress and needs treatment to address the underlying cause. Normalizing these symptoms doesn’t help you when you’re suffering, it just prolongs it unnecessarily.

Damaging Relationships

One of the worst challenges that I experienced when I was struggling with bipolar for the first decade was that I would do and say things when I was manic or depressed that I wouldn’t normally say or do. This included behavior that was abusive and painful to my family. 

When I was back in a rational state of mind, I felt humiliated and discouraged by what I had done and vowed that I wouldn’t repeat it again, only to break that promise the next time I experienced symptoms. This left me feeling helpless and hopeless. I knew I was damaging relationships, and I didn’t know how to stop it. 

The most distressing experiences came in 2008 when my symptoms were at their worst. That year I was hospitalized multiple times, experienced my first psychotic episode and I made three attempts on my life. The symptoms I was displaying were emotionally and mentally damaging to my husband and my children. Regardless of whether I was doing them on purpose, my family was being harmed and I knew it. 

Normalizing the symptoms that were hurting me and my family wouldn’t have helped, it would have hurt us. It wasn’t fair to me that I had bipolar symptoms, but it also wasn’t fair to my family. I needed to find a way to heal and recover, not expect them to accept abusive and damaging behavior as part of our relationship.

Normalizing Perpetuates Stigma

Finally, the idea that trying to “create awareness” for bipolar by normalizing the symptoms actually has the opposite effect than what is intended. Instead of creating more compassion around the disorder, it can make people who see it from the outside more cautious about entering into relationships, or hiring people who have bipolar because it looks like people are trying to make excuses for unhealthy behavior.

While it can create a feeling of solidarity among those suffering with bipolar, it perpetuates the stigmas for those who do not. Additionally, it can make those who are newly diagnosed feel more helpless and hopeless that they can ever recover.

The Road to Recovery

The road to recovery from bipolar begins with proactively managing your symptoms. Healing takes time and rather than be a victim to the mood swings during your recovery process you can learn to proactively manage them by using a Mood Cycle Survival Guide

This guide will help you:

  • stop feeling like a victim to the mood-swings, 
  • lessen the impact on you and your family, and 
  • shorten the duration of the symptoms.

The next step is getting curious about what caused your symptoms to occur in the first place. There is a misconception that a bipolar diagnosis is describing an underlying medical condition that is chronic, incurable and requires medication to treat for the rest of your life. None of these have to be true. You can identify the underlying causes of your symptoms and then treat them using a research-based, integrated approach that leads to recovery and healing.

    To learn more read: The Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part Three: The Steps to Heal Your Disorder

    Bipolar Symptoms Are NOT a Disease, They ARE Information

    When someone is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, they are led to believe that they suffer from a clearly defined medical condition or disease similar to diabetes. However, bipolar symptoms are not a disease, they are information

    The Problem with the Disease Model of Treatment

    Over the past fifty plus years the psychiatric industry has been operating under the assumption that bipolar symptoms are evidence of a medical condition. The problem is that they have never identified any underlying medical condition, despite diligently searching for one for over five decades.

    The chemical imbalance theory continues to be used to explain the need for medications, but there are three problems with this theory:

    1. It has been repeatedly debunked. “…mental disorders have. . .been touted to the public as diseases caused by chemical imbalances but there was never any evidence to support those claims.”
    2. This false claim is used to justify the use of psychiatric drugs in treatment and those drugs themselves cause a chemical imbalance in the brain.
    3. It prevents any curiosity into the actual underlying source of symptoms. 

    The Medication Trap

    Psychiatrists use the DSM criteria to assess symptoms and assign a diagnosis based on symptom clusters and then prescribe drugs. This is a bit like playing Russian Roulette because everyone reacts differently to the medications and often the drugs can make things worse. For example “…60 percent of those with a bipolar diagnosis said they had initially fallen ill with major depression and had turned bipolar after exposure to an antidepressant.” 

    The psychotropic drugs cause a chemical imbalance in the brain—they abnormalize brain function instead of normalizing it. Therefore, for some people with depressive symptoms, when their brains attempt to adapt to the introduction of the “antidepressant” it causes symptoms of mania. It is not revealing that a person actually has bipolar, it is causing it.

    In addition to the potential for side-effects that are identified as another psychiatric diagnosis (i.e. depression turning into bipolar), when someone discontinues the use of the medication it causes withdrawal symptoms and often those symptoms are attributed to the bipolar disorder instead of the drug withdrawal.

    Because there is an assumption of an underlying medical condition and zero curiosity about what else might be causing the symptoms the underlying issues that led to the diagnosis persist and are never addressed. This leads to a dependence on drugs and doctors for life!

    Doctors tell you that bipolar disorder is a chronic, incurable mental illness that you will need medication to manage for the rest of your life. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy! The reality is that the disease model of treatment is creating a chronic, incurable, medication dependent condition. The treatment is preventing the cure.

    Bipolar symptoms are not a disease, they are information. If you can learn to interpret that information and treat the source(s) of your symptoms you can heal. A bipolar diagnosis does not need to be a life-sentence!

    To learn more about how some of the causes of bipolar symptoms see The Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part Two: What is Bipolar, Anyway? 

    Psychology Today Article Review “A Psychiatric Diagnosis is Not a Disease”

    This week I read a fantastic article in Psychology Today that highlights one of the primary issues with bipolar diagnosis and treatment. The article titled “A Psychiatric Diagnosis is Not a Disease” by Jonathan Shedler, Ph.D., points out that the diagnoses listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) identify descriptions of symptoms, not causes.
    In the article Dr. Shedler states,

    “Confusion arises because medical diagnoses often point to etiology—underlying biological causes. This is why “chest pain” is not a disease, it is a symptom. Atherosclerosis, myocarditis, and pneumonia are diseases. They are underlying biological conditions that can cause chest pain.

    Psychiatric diagnoses are categorically different because they are merely descriptive, not explanatory. It’s not that we don’t know their causes yet. It’s that DSM diagnoses cannot speak to causes, now or ever. The DSM was not designed to speak to causes, only describe effects.”

    The problem with the DSM diagnosis of bipolar disorder is that it promotes the misconception that an underlying cause has been identified when in fact the diagnosis is simply describing a symptom cluster.

    Dr. Shedler further clarifies:

    “The ever-expanding list of entries in the DSM sound a lot like medical diseases, especially with the ominously-appended term disorder, but they are not. If we speak of generalized anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder as if they were equivalent to pneumonia or diabetes, we are committing a logical fallacy called a category error. A category error means ascribing a property to something that cannot possess it—like emotions to a rock.”

    A bipolar diagnosis does not need to be a life-sentence. If you become curious about what is causing your bipolar symptoms and then treat the source of the symptoms, you can heal.

    To learn more about healing your bipolar symptoms, check out The Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part Three: The Steps to Heal Your Disorder.