When you have a mental illness, it’s hard to tell what feelings and traits are part of your core personality, and which ones are actually mental illness symptoms. Bipolar disorder, especially, can rob you of your ability to understand yourself. Are the emotions you’re experiencing right now “real,” or are they a symptom of your illness? How can you make the distinction?
It doesn’t help that those around you may further confuse you by attributing normal emotional estates to your illness. In order to fully understand which experiences and feelings are part of your illness and which are part of your personality, you first need to learn as much as you can about bipolar disorder and its symptoms. Know what you’re like when you’re not experiencing a depressive or hypomanic episode. Keep track of your feelings, thoughts, and moods. Try to stay in the moment. Don’t be afraid to ask others how they’d react to situations you’re experiencing.
Understand Your Illness
Before you begin treatment for bipolar disorder with medications like Seroquel combined with psychotherapy, you may not realize at all that many of the emotional experiences you have are not normal.
Once you get a diagnosis and enter treatment, your first step should be to learn all you can about bipolar disorder and its symptoms. Read books and articles, attend workshops, join online forums, participate in workshops, and, of course, speak with your psychiatrists about the symptoms you can expect to experience. The more information you have about bipolar disorder symptoms, the better prepared you can be to recognize them in yourself.
Know What You’re Like When You’re Not in the Midst of an Episode
Many people with bipolar disorder go through periods when they’re not experiencing symptoms of the disorder — they’re neither depressed nor manic, and they feel normal. Make a list of qualities that define you when you’re in this space. When you’re feeling neither manic nor depressed, what kinds of things do you like? What do you dislike? What are your thoughts like, and at what pace do they move? What are your speech patterns like? Do you speak quickly or slowly?
It’s important to record in writing what you’re like when you’re in a normal mood, but you should also make sure to discuss it with those around you. Your friends and loved ones need to know how to recognize a return of bipolar disorder symptoms, too. Once the people who love you have a firm grasp of what you’re like when you’re in a normal mood versus what you’re like when you’re feeling depressed or manic, they can also be on the alert and help to tip you off when you’re entering a mood swing.
Keeping a journal is a great way to document your thoughts, feelings, and moods from one day to the next. By keeping a daily record of the way you feel and think, you can begin to notice patterns and stay aware of your emotional responses. If you start thinking more quickly or become overwhelmed by a long-lasting, overarching emotional state, journaling can help bring your attention to that.
Live in the Moment
Practicing mindfulness can help you cultivate the self-awareness necessary to identify those sometimes miniscule changes in your emotional state that can pinpoint impending mood swings. Many people with bipolar disorder can tell the difference between “normal” emotions and disordered ones because they feel different physically and mentally, but it takes a bit of mindfulness practice before you can begin to make that distinction.
Mindfulness practice can also help you to accept yourself and grow your self-confidence, which can be a big issue for people with bipolar disorder. Once you learn to accept yourself and your emotions, you have a chance of dealing with those emotions without also having to slog through the burden of all the other emotions you feel about your emotions. For example, it’s much easier to deal with feeling angry with your parents if you can accept that you feel angry with your parents, and you don’t have to also deal with feeling guilty, anxious, or sad about feeling angry with your parents.
Ask for Other Perspectives
One of the easiest ways to identify whether your feelings about a particular situation are normal is to ask others how they would feel about a similar situation in their lives. Of course, it’s important to choose people that you can trust and that don’t suffer from bipolar disorder. But keep in mind that everyone learns how to react to social situations and life events by taking cues from the people around them; there’s no shame in checking your own reactions against those of the people around you.
Bipolar disorder symptoms can have such a profound effect on your mood, emotions, and thoughts that it can take years to figure out who you really are underneath it all. Learn all you can about your illness, discuss your reactions with others, accept yourself, and try to keep track of your thoughts and feelings. With time, you’ll become an expert at identifying which thoughts and feelings are “real” and which ones are symptoms of your bipolar disorder.