June 5, 2023

Understanding and living with bipolar disorder

A Kaiser Permanente member shares his personal journey of navigating bipolar disorder and the transformative impact of care and support.

The right strategies can help people navigate the challenges of bipolar disorder and help achieve long-term stability.

Bipolar disorder is a complex mental health condition that features extreme and fluctuating changes in mood. It typically emerges in late adolescence or early adulthood, and can be managed with proper diagnosis and treatment. Chad Sundman’s journey with bipolar disorder has spanned 20 years.

"Diagnosing and treating my bipolar disorder has been a personal journey," shared Sundman, a Kaiser Permanente member in Southern California. "Initially, I thought my solution was going to be a quick fix. But with years of care from the mental health professionals at Kaiser Permanente, I realized that my mental health journey was not short-term.”

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that approximately 4.4% of adults in the U.S. experience bipolar disorder at some point in their lives. “Bipolar disorder manifests in various ways, with distinct types categorized by the pattern and severity of symptoms,” said Ashley Zucker, MD, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in San Bernardino.

Dr. Zucker explained 3 types of bipolar disorder:

  1. Bipolar I disorder involves manic episodes that can last at least a week, often accompanied by depressive episodes.
  2. In contrast, people with bipolar II disorder have milder manic episodes known as hypomania. These episodes are less severe compared to those experienced in bipolar I disorder.
  3. People with cyclothymic disorders have milder and more frequent mood swings but do not meet the diagnostic criteria for bipolar I or II disorder.

5 approaches to treating bipolar disorder

Medication: Mood stabilizers, like lithium, are prescribed to control manic and depressive episodes. Antipsychotic medications and antidepressants may also be used. It is important for the patient to collaborate closely with a psychiatrist to find the right medication and dosage.

Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy can be an effective treatment. CBT helps people identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviors, develop coping strategies, and enhance critical thinking skills. This type of therapy also addresses medication adherence, stress management, and interpersonal relationships.

Lifestyle adjustments: Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is key, as sleep disruptions can trigger mood episodes. Getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and avoiding alcohol are also recommended. Stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness and yoga can stabilize mood and promote well-being.

Building a support network: Friends, family members, and support groups provide understanding, empathy, and encouragement. Connecting with others who share similar experiences reduces isolation. Open communication fosters support and understanding.

Self-care practices: Setting realistic goals, managing stress, engaging in enjoyable activities, and practicing good self-care habits contribute to mental health and well-being.

Managing symptoms to lead a fulfilling life

Chad Sundman’s 20-year journey illustrates his resilience and determination required to navigate the condition. "I continue to use a combination of approaches to help me live my normal life,” he said. Through ongoing mental health care, Sundman has maintained a fulfilling quality of life.

Bipolar disorder requires ongoing comprehensive treatment combining medication, psychotherapy, lifestyle adjustments, social support, and self-care practices to help navigate the condition’s challenges and achieve long-term stability. Learn more about bipolar disorder, including the causes, the symptoms, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated.