3 Factors for Recognizing Cognitive Changes & Mood Shifts with Bipolar

Last Updated: 21 Dec 2020

I love a good mood-tracking checklist, but to recognize and address my symptoms, I look to specific factors that provide the context of impending episodes.

mood tracking cognitive changes bipolar disorder factors thoughts urgency ability velocity mania hypomania depression management

One thing I am currently trying to sear into my memory (and others’, too!) is that bipolar is a cognitive disorder—so the symptoms are incredibly sneaky…. And, unfortunately, undetected shifts in our cognition can affect everything we know and believe. I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to recognizing bipolar episodes—the sooner, the better!

Many Modes of Mood Management

Many of us track our moods by listing out our behaviors, activities, or feelings—and that’s smart! Took meds, CHECK; did yoga, CHECK; felt anxious, CHECK. These are useful data points to gather! You might make a list of your most common moods, your triggers, and different coping skills in your toolbox. Then, each day, run through each of the lists and check off what is/was applicable. I have done all of the above at various times in my journey, and I have found them very helpful.

But, that said, we can check boxes ’till we’re blue in the face, and still not have a comprehensive summation of our experience. Perhaps if we added adverbs, like: I did yoga reluctantly; I felt anxious incessantly; I took my meds late—then we’d have a better view. (Side note: that’s why journaling and creative activities are great accompaniments to any mood-tracking program—they can provide more context!)

Maybe There Are More Precise Methods for Monitoring?

It’s wonderful to keep records of our behaviors and activities because it shows us—in black-and-white—what has been going on. With some steady, long-term self-documentation, we can begin to recognize our own hidden and unique patterns and cycles.

Ideally, though (for me, at least), we’d be able to notice neurochemical shifts before they become problematic in our behavior. I feel an inexhaustible Nancy Drew–style curiosity about understanding the cause-and-effect relationship between bipolar disorder and behavior. I know that the effect is our behavior … and I think that makes the cause our feelings.

To this end, I’ve come to recognize some new, effective ways of gauging the mish-mash of my feelings—by examining my sense of urgency, my ability to complete tasks, and the velocity of my thoughts.

I consider these three factors and give them a ranking from 1 to 10 (with 5 as the baseline). It’s my goal to be able to catch things early and “nip it in the bud,” so to speak, by balancing my mini-shifts in cognition as they arise.

Three Factors for Recognizing Cognitive & Mood Shifts

Factor #1: Urgency

  • What is the strength of my desire right now?
  • How badly do I want a particular thing?
  • Does the thing I feel urgent about deserve such attention?

Think back to a time when you had a truly urgent need for something (like a doctor, or a fire extinguisher … or a restroom). I’m guessing it was probably pretty hard to focus on much of anything else. When a situation threatens our life or well-being, our consciousness simply can’t look away until the problem is solved. So, sometimes, a sense of urgency is a good thing—because it’s a reflex that keeps us alive and well!

But where should we draw the line between what is and what isn’t an urgent need?

Let me provide an (innocuous) example from my own life to explore:

Lately, I’ve been on a desperate, emotional, urgent mission to find matching family pajamas. And by family, I mean my family (of five); my sister’s family (of three … plus two cats); and my mom.

We live in three different cities, and I was kind of enraptured with the idea of all of us wearing cute, matching pajamas while yawning and sipping coffee on a Zoom call as the kids (and cats!) provide holiday entertainment. I spun my wheels on this mission for a long time—digging through just about every site from Amazon to Zara—and was ready to accrue some credit card debt.

But if I found a style I liked, there weren’t enough available in the right sizes; if I found the right sizes, the style and quality weren’t good enough for me. Infuriating!

At some point (albeit in the wee hours of the morn while feverishly scrolling through a shopping cart full of 20 items for the fifth night in a row) I had to ask myself, Is this worth it? To dig deeper: Is it worth the money? Is it worth the effort? Is it worth the majority of my focus?

 … I bet you know the ending of this story; the answer was “No.” Once I stopped to review the situation honestly, I had to admit to myself that matching family pajamas are not worth losing sleep over, nor are they a good reason to make a giant investment (after all, kids outgrow stuff so quickly…).

Obviously, there was no threat to my livelihood in this endeavor, but it felt like I was on an urgent mission. Thinking about it more, I realized that the core of what I wanted to do was to bring cozy, peaceful harmony to my loved ones. Ain’t nothing wrong with that! There are just other, better (healthier) ways of going about it!

Everyone must figure out for themselves where to draw the line between what qualifies as an urgent need and what does not. That’s step one of “general life management.” Step two is to stay connected to that definition even when emotions are running high—and that’s the toughie for those of us with bipolar.

Bipolar is an invisible, cognitive condition that affects not only WHAT we feel but HOW we feel it; and when it silently kicks in, we can unknowingly get “carried away” with an idea or activity that wouldn’t be considered an authentic pursuit under stable/neutral/balanced mood conditions. That isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, but, real talk: it’s a slippery slope that funnels directly into the infamous “Bipolar Bad Decision Mode.”

My advice is this: When urgency is high, don’t spin out; instead, proceed with caution.

Factor #2: Ability

  • What is my activity/productivity level right now?
  • Am I struggling to complete tasks, or am I checking things off the to-do list?
  • Am I completing tasks more quickly than usual, or am I particularly clumsier or less agile today?

To continue with the example above, I just spun and spun my wheels on the PJ project for ages; I didn’t make any decisions or progress. It was all a blur of web pages and shopping carts and potential discount codes. And I was so consumed with the mission that I ignored other responsibilities—like buying groceries, attending appointments, and paying bills. My ability to “keep life moving” had been eclipsed by … pajamas.

It’s good to make note of your general productivity level—not relative to other people, but relative to your own long-term experience. A prolonged spike or dip in your ability to “TCB” (take care of business) can be a clue that your brain chemistry is fluctuating—and an opportunity to self-correct. Fortunately, I was able to snap out of it eventually and return to regularly scheduled programming.

If you can spot an ongoing episode of relatively low-functioning behavior, you can counter it with a big dose of self-compassion and patience.

Likewise, if you can spot an ongoing episode of relatively high-functioning behavior, you can evaluate what’s working so well for you and keep an extra-vigilant eye for any unusual or hypo/manic behavior.

Factor #3: Velocity

  • What is the speed of my thoughts right now?
  • Are they racing and dominant?
  • Or are they slow and hard to find?

If you’ve ever watched a movie that portrays a person with bipolar, you’ve seen it: the scene where they are “wigging out,” talking super-fast, or working feverishly. For better or for worse it’s, like, the “stock image” of bipolar characters in film. I will grit my teeth and admit that there is some relevance to this stereotypical scene.

One of the most common symptoms that I notice in the behavior of other people* with bipolar is hurried and dramatic speech and/or emphatic and long-winded writing. And, actually, what finally made me understand that I was experiencing hypo/mania was a (bipolar medication) commercial portraying a woman who was in a high-functioning state, then she quickly morphed into a frenzied and hectic working state. So, I guess you could say that velocity is at the core of my understanding of bipolar.

[*For the record: It’s relatively easy for me to acknowledge when my thoughts are racing, but it’s not so easy for me to acknowledge when my speech or commentary is racing. C’est la vie…]

If you can detect an ongoing phase where your thoughts, speech, writing, etc., are moving at breakneck speed, you can take a time-out to get grounded with some mindfulness and meditation.

Likewise, if you can detect a sustained period of slow, blank, and/or muted speaking, thinking, or moving, you can schedule a visit with your therapist or support group to balance it.

My Myopic Milieu

I’ve found that when I take a moment to consider where I am on these three most basic of spectrums, it’s much easier for me to know my mood whereabouts (or at least get a better sense of where I am cognitively).

And when I recognize abnormalities in these areas, I try to rebalance myself with the appropriate mental response. I wish the same for you!

Next time you’re mood tracking, journaling, or doing any other kind of self-reflection—take a moment to consider:

  • How strong is my current sense of urgency?
  • What is my current level of ability? and
  • What is my current velocity?

Then rank them, 1–10 (with 5 as a baseline). It might make misaligned mood mitigation more manageable!

P.S. The day after I gave up on the PJ mission, I received a gift in the mail from my sister.  I’ll give you one guess what it was …
… matching family pajamas 🙂

Originally posted December 24, 2020.

About the author
Brooke Baron has a BA in English, a minor in philosophy, and a lifelong obsession with language. She is the author of A Beginner's Guide to Being Bipolar. Although born and raised in Alabama, she has been a proud California resident for 10+ years. During a professional stint in Silicon Valley—in both the corporate and private business sectors—she handled internal and external communications, office design and construction, photography and graphic design, executive assistance, and functioning on very little sleep. Brooke now specializes in "New Human Orientation" from her home in the suburbs. She has a young, loving, growing family of five and is fueled by that love and coffee. In addition to caring for the rest of Team Baron, she enjoys writing, reading, researching miscellaneous topics, and funneling manic energy into creative projects. With so many balls in the air—including bipolar II disorder—balancing her life is like balancing two kangaroos on a see-saw. She offers consulting services for the bipolar community at Better Bipolar Balance.

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