What Is Bipolar Disorder and How Does It Affect Addiction?

Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach

There is a very definite connection between bipolar disorder and addiction. Many people with addiction are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and many people with bipolar disorder self-medicate with substances that develop into addiction. They are difficult to separate and even more challenging to live with. What exactly is bipolar disorder, and how does it affect addiction?

Defining Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder was formerly known as manic depression and is considered a serious mental health diagnosis. This mood disorder is characterized by both periods of depression and periods of elevated mood that typically last for two weeks or more. There are two major types of bipolar disorder:

  • Bipolar I: periods of mania that last at least seven days and/or require hospitalization as well as depression that lasts at least two weeks, with mixed episodes also possible
  • Bipolar II: periods of depression with hypomania, but not full-blown manic episodes like bipolar I

As with every mood disorder, bipolar disorder looks different for everyone. Sometimes symptoms can be relatively mild, and sometimes, symptoms can be extreme and result in hospitalization and other serious consequences.

Manic symptoms of bipolar disorder include:

  • Feeling excessively or abnormally happy
  • Pressured speech
  • Excess energy
  • Feelings of self-importance and grandiosity
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Increased creativity or productivity
  • Being easily distracted
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling easily agitated or irritable
  • Decreased need for food
  • Overextending self or overspending
  • Risk-taking or harmful behaviors such as sex, gambling, etc.
  • Hallucinations, delusions, or illogical thinking

Depression symptoms of bipolar disorder include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or sadness
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Being easily distracted
  • Loss of interest in preferred activities
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns, such as too much or too little
  • Irritability
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Mixed episodes are when both manic and depressive symptoms are present simultaneously. There is also something called rapid cycling, in which the person’s mood swings up and down quickly. All forms of bipolar disorder can impair daily function and be debilitating.

Are Bipolar Disorder and Substance Use Disorders Genetic?

Bipolar disorder is known to have a genetic component with research showing that chances of passing it down from generation to generation are between 60-80%. Environmental factors also determine whether or not the disorder manifests. However, due to the volatile nature of the behaviors associated with the disorder, those environmental factors like trauma are often present within families where bipolar disorder is also present.

Substance use disorders can also be genetic, with genes responsible for about 50% of the development of an addiction and environmental factors often responsible for the other 50%. When substance abuse exists in families, environmental factors are also likely to be present.

The Co-Occurring Disorder With Common Neurobiology

Bipolar has become a common co-occurring diagnosis with substance use disorders. Research demonstrates that approximately 40% of those with bipolar disorder develop an addiction at some point, making bipolar disorder one of the most common co-occurring disorders. Current research indicates that there is likely a common neurobiological connection in the brain between bipolar disorder and addiction that also links them on a physiological level. Ultimately, the odds are stacked against someone with bipolar disorder when it comes to the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.

Why Do People With Bipolar Disorder Self-Medicate?

Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder can prevent people from recognizing or accessing professional treatment for their mental health. Since the symptoms can also be distressing and cause serious life problems, many with bipolar disorder will turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, which often compounds their problems. Bipolar disorder exacerbates substance use disorder and vice-versa, making symptoms worse. Self-medication becomes addiction, which contributes to co-occurring disorders.

Can Bipolar Disorder and Addiction Be Treated?

The good news is that both bipolar disorder and addiction can be treated. When these conditions are co-occurring, they must be treated simultaneously, or the symptoms of the untreated disorder can worsen.

The irony of treating the two disorders is that one requires ceasing the use of drugs or alcohol while treating the other requires prescription drugs. However, it is important to note that the medications used to treat bipolar disorder are not addictive.

Treating bipolar disorder requires the care of a psychiatrist, while treating substance use disorder requires the care that an addiction treatment center offers. Seeking treatment for both conditions simultaneously is the best way to ensure the possibility of mental wellness for your future.

At DiscoveryMD, we understand the importance of treating co-occurring disorders simultaneously. We offer psychiatric and medical evaluations and counseling. You don’t have to struggle with addiction alone. Contact us today for treatment options so you can take back control of your life and overcome your addiction through healing. 

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