March 30th is World Bipolar Disorder Day and we celebrate it on Vincent van Gogh’s birthday (1853-1890) who was suspected to suffer from bipolar.

Right now 46 million people in the world are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, putting most of them in the statistics for chronic illness bearing.

Stress is a risk factor for many mental and physical conditions and bipolar disorder is no exception. Although the mechanisms behind the connections between stress and bipolar disorder are not entirely known, here is what we know from years of research, clinical practice and observations in the field:

🧩People diagnosed with bipolar disorder are more sensitive to stressful situations. 

A person with bipolar disorder can be triggered more easily under high levels of stress and more stressors can affect mood swings and the intensity of the symptoms. One of the explanations is that stress hormones  -like (nor)adrenaline and cortisol- which are increased when the systems of stress are activated in our body, are also found to be increased in people with bipolar disorder. This could potentially mean that a person with bipolar has “by default” high levels of stress hormones therefore any kind of situation that would trigger the activation of the stress response will increase these levels even further leading to an episode.

🧩Extreme stress can contribute to bipolar disorder

It is hard to name any factor -even stress- as a cause of bipolar disorder. However, stress can significantly contribute to its onset and it is considered an important risk factor. According to the diathesis-stress model, in order for bipolar disorder to start then the person needs to have a certain predisposition to it and -at least- some stress to trigger it. This means that stress on its own cannot cause bipolar disorder -besides this has not been proven- but if there is the genetic predisposition for someone to be bipolar at some point in their life, then extreme stress from early on in life can trigger the onset of bipolar disorder.

🧩Stress management is very important for the treatment of bipolar disorder. 

With stress being a risk and triggering factor, the management of mood swings which are prominent in bipolar disorder can get very challenging. Apart from the fact that stress can trigger frequent mood swings, it can lead to cognitive and emotional barriers for the person which makes the awareness and the management of the symptoms very hard. This is why stress management should be included in the treatment of bipolar disorder alongside Cognitive-Behavioural treatment protocols and proper medication. Techniques like mindfulness meditation and yoga and physical activity can help:

a. maintaining a hormonal balance since frequent fluctuations could potentially lead to frequent mood swings,

b. building resilience in order to decrease the sensitivity of stress response when there is a prominent stressor, and

c. becoming more aware of the occurrence of the symptoms in order to act early in their onset so as to avoid a severe episode.  

If you or a person close to you, seems sensitive under conditions of stress, asking for help early can be proven paramount for the mental wellbeing of the (potential) patient. Even if you are not sure about the severity of the symptoms, asking for guidance from your GP from the very beginning can save you or the person next to you from more serious aspects of a potential diagnosis.

You know what they say: it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If you would like to get help to understand more how you can manage stress, feel free to book an appointment here.

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