Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that can cause extreme mood swings. Even though doctors don’t fully understand what causes the disorder, experts believe that problems with specific brain circuits and abnormal levels of certain brain chemicals may be to blame.
Specific symptoms of bipolar disorder can vary from person to person, but the condition generally causes individuals to experience unusual and often extreme changes in mood, energy, activity, concentration, and focus. These sudden changes can be extremely debilitating and often interfere with individuals’ daily lives. In fact, 60 percent of people with bipolar disorder have a history of substance abuse.
This statistic, along with the brain abnormalities that seem to trigger the condition and the extreme mood changes caused by the illness, has led many behavioral health experts to wonder if bipolar disorder makes individuals more likely to use addictive substances.
We’ll explore the latest research below.
Understanding Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is an illness that causes extreme mood swings. People with bipolar disorder may seem extremely happy and elated one moment and irritable and depressed the next. Even though everyone goes through normal ups and downs throughout life, changes triggered by bipolar disorder are often sudden and extreme. Generally, bipolar changes also called “mood episodes,” fall into 2 categories: manic or depressive.
During a manic episode, individuals tend to feel extremely happy and energetic. They also might appear to be extremely confident or arrogant. Individuals will also have a high level of activity.
Common symptoms of a manic episode include:
- Feeling “high” and elated or irritable and touchy
- Having more energy than usual and feeling wired or jumpy
- Racing thoughts
- Decreased need for sleep
- High appetite for food, drinking, sex, or other pleasurable activities
- Feeling extremely self-important, talented, or powerful
- Talking extremely quickly about a lot of different topics
During a depressive episode, individuals feel sad, indifferent, and hopeless. Individuals will also feel extremely fatigued and have low levels of energy. They may isolate themselves. If not, they will engage in very few to no activities.
Other symptoms of a depressive episode include:
- Feeling extremely down or anxious
- Lack of interest in almost all activities
- Inability to do simple, small tasks
- Feeling hopeless and worthless
- Thinking about death or suicide
- Talking very slowly or feeling like there’s nothing to say
- Difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early, or sleeping too much
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
Mood episodes may occur rarely or multiple times a year, but the severity of these emotional highs and lows often make living with bipolar dipolar extremely challenging. Most individuals have trouble managing relationships and everyday tasks at school or work. Because of these symptoms and the difficulties they cause, many individuals will turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping.
How Bipolar Disorder Increases the Risk of Substance Abuse
More than half the people diagnosed with bipolar disorder also have a substance use disorder. Even though researchers don’t fully understand the connection between the two disorders, the behavioral and emotional symptoms associated with bipolar disorder can make individuals more likely to use addictive substances. The way bipolar disorder affects the brain can also increase individuals’ likelihood of substance use.
Bipolar Disorder Increases Impulsive Behavior
The sudden mood episodes triggered by bipolar disorder can increase impulsivity. During a manic episode, individuals may experience racing thoughts and take quick, impulsive actions. This impulsivity can cause individuals to consume addictive substances without thinking about the consequences. Manic mood episodes can also increase individuals’ appetites, which can cause them to overindulge in harmful substances. At the same time, bipolar disorder can cause individuals to have an inflated sense of self, which can make them wrongly assume that drugs and alcohol won’t affect them the way addictive substances affect other people.
Bipolar disorder can also reduce the amount of gray matter in the brain. The areas of the brain that have significant gray matter help individuals control their impulses and senses. When these parts of the brain have diminished gray matter, individuals become more impulsive and are less likely to properly process information, thoughts, and feelings, which can lead to substance use and addiction.
The Risk Factors That Lead to Bipolar Disorder Can Also Increase The Risk For Substance Abuse
Even though bipolar disorder affects men and women of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups equally, certain risk factors can increase an individual’s likelihood of developing the condition. Some of the most common risk factors for bipolar disorder include genetic predisposition, living in a challenging environment, trauma, adverse childhood experiences, poor sleeping habits, and consistently experiencing high stress. Sadly, these same factors can also make individuals more likely to use addictive substances.
Growing up in a distressing environment, experiencing neglect, being abused, witnessing violence, and having high stress levels can increase individuals’ risk of substance abuse. Because bipolar disorder and addiction have similar risk factors, many researchers believe that these circumstances actually contribute to the development of both conditions. This means that a bipolar disorder risk factor can, in fact, make individuals more likely to use addictive substances. In the same way, using drugs and alcohol can trigger and worsen bipolar disorder mood episodes.
People With Bipolar Disorder May Try to Self-Medicate Their Symptoms
Living with bipolar disorder isn’t easy. Often, the symptoms affect individuals’ day-to-day lives. Because of this, many people with bipolar disorder try to self-medicate their distress with drugs or alcohol. In fact, many individuals use certain drugs for manic episodes and others for depressive episodes.
During manic episodes, researchers believe many people use substances like amphetamines or cocaine to prolong their high level of energy and excitement. Other individuals may use downers like alcohol or sedatives to try to calm themselves down. During a depressive episode, individuals may use stimulants to elevate their mood or energy levels. When individuals experience severe levels of hopelessness or sadness, they may use sedatives as a way of distracting themselves from how they really feel.
Treatment That Combines The Best of Brain Science and Clinical Support
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we know that mental health challenges, mood disorders, and substance abuse originate in the brain. That’s why we take a different approach to recovery by combining the best of brain science and clinical support. Our mental health treatment program can help you manage bipolar disorder without turning to drugs and alcohol. Our addiction treatment program can help you overcome any substance use challenges you may be facing. And our dual diagnosis program can help you overcome both conditions at the same time. Let us help you live the thriving, sober life you deserve. Contact us today if you’re ready to begin or continue your recovery journey.
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Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.