From appendicitis and anxiety to heart conditions and the common cold, we’ve all diagnosed ourselves from time to time. Thanks to Dr. Google and WebMD, our symptoms are just a mouse click away. But self-diagnosis, while convenient, can be dangerous, particularly if and when you are diagnosing yourself with a mental health disorder. Why? Because self-diagnosis only paints part of the picture. It also doesn’t account for treatment options, plans, help and hope.
Here’s everything you need to know about bipolar disorder, and how you can talk to your doctor if you suspect you have this condition.
What is bipolar disorder?
Formerly referred to as manic-depressive disorder, bipolar disorder is a condition “characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels,” the National Institute of Mental Health explains. “These shifts in mood and energy levels are more severe than the normal ups and downs that are experienced by everyone… [and they can] affect a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.” How so?
“During manic episodes, individuals can feel very happy or ‘up,’ and experience increased energy, decreased need for sleep, and increased difficulty thinking clearly,” Dr. Jason Strauss, MD, the chair and chief of psychiatry at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, tells Parade. “During depressive episodes, individuals experience low mood, as well as poor sleep, appetite, energy, and concentration.”
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of bipolar disorder vary, from person to person and condition to condition. There are four types of bipolar disorder:
- Bipolar 1
- Bipolar 2
- Bipolar disorder otherwise not specified
They also vary depending on the state. Mania and hypomania symptoms, for example, are very different from depressive ones. According to the Mayo Clinic, those experiencing mania or hypomania are often upbeat, jumpy, and energized. Unusual talkativeness, a decreased need for sleep, and exaggerated or racing thoughts are also common. Individuals experiencing depression may feel sad or lethargic. Dietary changes may also occur, and apathy is common. Those who are depressed generally feel worthless or excessive levels of inappropriate guilt.
What should you do if you suspect you have bipolar disorder?
The first thing you should do if you believe you have bipolar disorder or are experiencing any of the symptoms of mania, hypomania, or depression is to talk to your doctor.
“Diagnosis and care of mental health conditions can be difficult,” an entry on Mental Health America explains. “Having symptoms of bipolar disorder is different than having bipolar disorder. In addition, symptoms of bipolar disorder can be caused by other mental health conditions, or other health problems. Only a trained professional, such as a doctor or a mental health provider, can make this determination.” As such, it is imperative you find a licensed therapist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional.
You should also attempt to track your symptoms, which is easier said than done but can be very helpful, especially since getting an accurate bipolar diagnosis can be difficult. According to a 2006 study published in Psychiatry, around 69 percent of all cases are misdiagnosed. One-third of those aren’t properly diagnosed for 10 years or more.
What questions should you ask?
When you arrive at your appointment, you’ll probably have a lot of questions—and that’s a good thing. So what questions should you ask? What information do you really need to know? Asking about your diagnosis and treatment is key, soo consider questions like:
- How is bipolar disorder managed or treated?
- What medication is available, and how long will they take to work?
- What is your basic approach to treatment?
- Is therapy an effective way to manage bipolar disorder, and how do other people treat this condition?
- What is your experience with bipolar disorder?
- Are there any signs or symptoms I should be mindful of?
- How can I tell if I am experiencing a mood shift?
You can and also should also ask any question(s) that make you feel more comfortable. No issue is too tiny, no concern too small.
Other tips and tricks
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your first appointment or a potential bipolar diagnosis, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Millions of people struggle with their mental health and associated care. The good news is there are numerous things you can do to ease your anxiety and stress, including:
Prepare for your appointment with a list of questions or concerns. The more information you have, the better—and this includes signs and symptoms you’ve experienced.
Ask for clarity. Bipolar may be new to you, and that’s okay. But if you do not understand your diagnosis, be sure to ask for additional information. Understand your treatment options, plans, and next steps.
Bring a trusted family member or friend. While it may seem unconventional, having the support of a third party can help.
Related: 10 Celebrities with Bipolar Disorder
How is bipolar disorder treated?
While the treatment of bipolar disorder varies, most individuals manage this condition with medication and therapy. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness—or NAMI— “treatment for bipolar disorder may include medication, psychotherapy, education, self-management strategies and external supports such as family, friends and support groups. There is no one approach to treating bipolar disorder.”
That said, it’s important you explore all of your options and know that if one treatment plan isn’t working, there are alternatives. You also don’t need to suffer in shame, silence, or alone.