How is anger linked to bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder (BP) is a brain disorder that causes unexpected and often dramatic shifts in your mood. These moods can be intense and euphoric. This is called a manic period. Or they may leave you feeling sad and despairing. This is called a depressive period. That’s why BP is also sometimes called manic-depressive disorder.

The changes in mood associated with BP cause changes in energy too. People experiencing a BP episode often exhibit different behaviors, activity levels, and more.

Irritability is an emotion people with BP experience often. This emotion is common during manic episodes, but it can occur at other times too. A person who is irritable is easily upset and often bristles at others’ attempts to help them. They may be easily annoyed or aggravated with someone’s requests to talk. If the requests become persistent or other factors come into play, the person with BP may anger easily and often.

Anger isn’t a symptom of BP, but many people who have the disorder as well as their family and friends may report frequent bouts with the emotion. For some people with BP, irritability is perceived as anger, and may become as severe as rage.

A 2012 study found that people with BP exhibit greater episodes of aggression than people without the mood disorder. People with BP who aren’t being treated or those experiencing a severe mood swing or rapid cycling between moods are more likely to experience periods of irritability too. These emotions may be followed by anger and rage.

Keep reading to learn more about what may be behind this emotion and what you can do about it.

Is anger a side effect of medication used to treat bipolar disorder?

Prescription medicine is one of the primary ways doctors treat BP. Doctors often prescribe a variety of medicines for the disorder, and mood stabilizers like lithium are usually part of the mix.

Lithium can treat symptoms of BP and help correct the chemical imbalance that led to the disorder in the first place. Although some people who take lithium report increased episodes of irritability and anger, this isn’t considered a side effect of the medication.

Side effects of mood stabilizers like lithium do include:

  • restlessness
  • constipation
  • loss of appetite
  • dry mouth

Changes in emotions are often the result of your body learning to adjust to the new chemicals. That’s why it’s important that you continue to take your medicine as prescribed by your doctor. Even if new symptoms crop up, you shouldn’t stop taking your medicine without first discussing it with your doctor. If you do, it may cause an unexpected swing in your emotions and increase your risk of side effects.

Learn more: Coping with mania »

It’s OK to be angry

Everyone gets upset from time to time. Anger can be a normal, healthy reaction to something that has happened in your life.

However, anger that’s uncontrollable or prevents you from interacting with another individual is a problem. If you think this strong emotion is preventing you from having a healthy relationship with friends, loved ones, and colleagues, it may be time to see a doctor.

Irritability or anger may be impacting your life if:

Your friends avoid you: Once the life of the party, you’re now not sure why you don’t get invited to the annual lake weekend. A run-in with a friend or two may discourage your friends from inviting you to future events.

Family and loved ones back down: Arguments are common, even within the most secure relationships. However, if you find your loved ones aren’t willing to have an intense discussion with you, your behavior may be a problem.

You’re reprimanded at work: Anger or irritability at work may create a difficult work environment with your colleagues. If you’ve been reprimanded or counseled recently about your attitude, the way you handle your emotions may be an issue.

If this sounds like something you’ve experienced, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. If you need honest feedback about your behavior, ask someone you can trust. Tell them you understand how uncomfortable it may be, but you need to know how your behavior is impacting your relationship.

Take a healthy approach to anger management

If you’re experiencing anger or irritability, learning to cope and manage the emotions can help improve your relationships with others and your overall quality of life.

These steps may help you manage any emotional swings:

Identify your triggers: Some events, people, or requests can be really upsetting and turn a good day into a bad one. As you experience these triggers, make a list. Try to recognized what triggers you or makes you most upset, and learn to ignore or cope with them.

Take your medicines: Properly treated BP may cause fewer severe emotional swings. Once you and your doctor decide on a treatment plan, stick to it. It can help you maintain even emotional states.

Talk to a therapist: In addition to medicines, doctors often suggest people with BP take part in cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy can help people with BP express their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. The end goal is for you to learn to be productive despite the disorder, and to find ways to cope with any lingering side effects.

Harness the energy: When you sense yourself getting upset or frustrated, look for creative outlets that can help you harness the energy while avoiding a negative interaction with another person. This could include exercise, meditation, reading, or any other activity that lets you manage emotions in a more productive way.

Lean in to your support team: When you’re having a bad day or week, you need people you can turn to. Explain to your friends and family members that you’re working through the symptoms of BP and need accountability. Together, you can learn to manage this mood disorder and its side effects.

How to be there for someone living with bipolar disorder

For the people around someone who has this disorder, emotional shifts like those that are common with BP may seem very unexpected. The highs and lows can take a toll on everyone.

Learning to anticipate and react to these changes can help people with BP, as well as their loved ones, cope with the emotional changes.

Here are a few strategies to keep in mind:

Don’t back down: If you’ve been dealing with these bursts of irritability and anger for a long time, you may be tired and unwilling to put up a fight. Instead, ask your loved one to visit a therapist with you so the two of you can learn ways to communicate more clearly when emotions are high.

Remember that they’re not necessarily angry at you: It can be difficult to not feel that the anger attack is about something you did or said. If you can’t pinpoint a reason for their anger, take a step back. Ask them what they’re upset about, and go from there.

Engage in a positive way: Ask your loved one about their experiences. Be willing to listen and be open. Sometimes explaining what they’re experiencing can help your loved one cope better with their swings and communicate better through them.

Look for a community of support: Ask your loved one’s doctor or therapist for recommendations for groups you could join or professionals you could see. You need support too.

Monitor medication compliance: The key to treatment for BP is consistency. Help ensure that your loved one is taking medicine and other treatments when and how they’re supposed to.

Keep reading: 10 things to add to your caregiver toolkit »