Bipolar Disorder: What’s Your Depression Saying?

One of my favorite animated children’s films is Inside Out by Disney. It makes you laugh, cry and is a genuinely wonderful movie. But more than that, it is extremely insightful and teaches some powerful lessons, even for adults.

One of the messages of the film is that feelings aren’t good, or bad, they just are. And not only that, they have a purpose. Learning to understand the purpose of the feelings is a powerful thing. Instead of feeling bad that you are experiencing certain feelings, and shaming yourself for those feelings, you can learn to feel your feelings, understand what those feelings are telling you, and then decide what action you should take based on what you are experiencing.

In the film Inside Out, the main character Joy, gives a breakdown of what each feeling’s purpose is: Fear is “good at keeping Riley safe,” Disgust “basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially,” Anger “cares very deeply about things being fair,” Joy’s job is to keep Riley happy, and Joy doesn’t understand what Sadness is supposed to do, and keeps trying to prevent Sadness from having any influence on Riley.

As the film goes on it becomes apparent that Sadness has a very important role to play for Riley. When Joy finally understands Sadness’s purpose, she encourages Sadness to play her part. With the help of Sadness, Riley is able to get the help she needs to adjust to the changes and challenges she is facing in her life.

When the brain is functioning in a healthy balanced way, feelings are produced by experiences. For example, in the movie fear is caused by Riley encountering dangerous situations, disgust is caused by encountering unappealing food or social situations, and anger is brought on by perceived unfairness.

What If Your Emotions Are “Misfiring”?

What do you do when your emotions are misfiring because of a chemical imbalance or unhealed trauma? If emotions are occurring because the chemicals in your brain are out of balance and not necessarily because of normal outside stimuli, are they no longer valid or useful? Should you label your emotions as bad, or not listen to them when you are experiencing a mood cycle?

Not necessarily.

One of the challenges I faced when I was first diagnosed was that I didn’t know how to trust my feelings anymore. For the years that I went undiagnosed I had listened to the feelings that I was having and tried to interpret them according to what I had been taught by others. 

When I felt the intense, euphoric exhilaration of mania I believed that all the irrational thoughts that were in my head were not only rational, but inspired. I made sweeping changes because of those thoughts and feelings and I told everyone. It all felt right and real.

When I crashed into depression I believed all of the negative, self-destructive thoughts that were in my head because they matched the negative, self-destructive feelings I was having. I hid myself from the world and tried to numb my brain by binge-watching television and movies.

I develop irrational thought and behavior patterns based on this cycle and by the time I was diagnosed those patterns seemed normal to me. This continued for years after my diagnosis because even though I was trying to find the right combination of medications to balance my brain and working with a therapist nothing seemed to help and I just felt broken and hopeless.

How do you live a healthy life if you don’t know if you can trust your own mind and feelings? It can make you feel insecure and unsure of yourself. Or you may feel belligerent and angry and decide that you should be able to just live on the rollercoaster because that is the way you were made and everyone else will have to just deal with it (see my post Bipolar Disorder: The Rollercoaster).

One important tool to develop when you are trying to learn to live well with bipolar disorder is to learn how to recognize when feelings are produced by the chemical imbalance. You need to learn to identify the signs that you are manic or depressed and then understand what those mood imbalances are trying to tell you. 

The feelings produced by a mood imbalance can serve a purpose. It is like they are speaking a different language and if you learn to interpret them correctly you can then understand how to respond in a way that is healthy, even if your brain isn’t healthy at the time.

How Do You Identify Signs of a Mood Cycle? 

In the beginning it may be difficult to distinguish between healthy emotional responses and unhealthy ones, because it all feels normal to you. For this reason it is critical to begin tracking your moods and symptoms. Tracking your mood and symptoms will begin to help you create a more accurate picture of what is happening in your mind and identify when you are experiencing a mood cycle, what the associated symptoms of your mood cycles are and even what may have triggered it.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this. You could use a journal, a spreadsheet, or an app. My favorite tool is the Bearable app. (I DO NOT receive any benefit or compensation from recommending Bearable, I recommend it because I love it!) 

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

I struggled with using a mood journal because it required me to think and often I couldn’t think clearly enough to put what I was feeling into words. I also struggled with remembering to write things down frequently enough to create an accurate picture. Another issue I struggled with is how to convey what I had written to my doctor and therapist. Weeks and pages of journal entries can be difficult to condense and quantify, and that can make it challenging to see patterns and connections.

The Bearable App is fantastic because it is very user friendly. It allows you to keep track of your mood, different factors that could trigger cycles, medications, sleep, and other helpful information. The app is very easy to use and you can set reminders for yourself to input your information each day. It is very customizable, and it gives you a way to view insights to see trends and connections.

When you discover the symptoms of your mood cycle you can learn to understand what your depression or mania is trying to tell you and you can then respond to it in a healthy way.

Learning How to Respond to a Mood Cycle

Some of the ways you might respond are:

  1. Discussing a medication or supplement change with your doctor or customer support. If the mood cycle is being caused by medication or supplements not doing their job you may need to adjust or change them. Always work with your doctor if you are on medication or customer support if you are taking supplements. DO NOT make these changes on your own as it can be dangerous.
  2. Working with a therapist. A good therapist can help you learn to identify if your emotional responses to things are healthy or unhealthy and how to handle the unhealthy responses in a healthy, balanced way. Your therapist can also help you identify if your mood cycle is triggered by unhealed trauma, unhealthy thought or behavior habits, or unhealthy boundaries. 
  3. Learning to practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a very effective tool to help you learn to separate yourself from your thoughts and feelings in a way to look at them more objectively and determine if those thoughts or feelings are healthy or unhealthy. Mindfulness is an important tool to learn if you want to learn how to live well with bipolar disorder.
  4. Developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. Your plan will help you learn how to take responsibility for your mood cycles and manage them more effectively–lessening the impact of the cycle on you and your family and shortening the duration of the cycle.

Just like Joy learned that Sadness served an important purpose in Riley’s mind, you can learn to understand what your mania and depression are telling you and learn to respond in a healthy way, even if your mind is unhealthy at the time. Taking responsibility for your mood cycles, instead of giving into them or fighting them will help you progress on your journey to learn how to live well with bipolar disorder.

If you are a mother with bipolar disorder and you are looking for support in your effort to live well with it please join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

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