Learning to tell the difference between stress from a specific source and anxiety from bipolar disorder can help you manage both.
First, I should clarify the role anxiety plays in bipolar disorder.
Bipolar is a mood disorder that has two mood swings: mania and depression. All of our symptoms will either show up in a depression episode, a manic episode or a mixed episode where we are manic and depressed at the same time. The is also called dysphoric mania. Many of these episodes will include anxiety. But, and this is a big but, people with bipolar disorder generally do NOT have anxiety when they are not manic or depressed, in my experience.
If a person with bipolar disorder has anxiety when there is not a mania or a depression, I’ve found this is often considered a separate diagnosis.
When I say bipolar anxiety, it means an anxiety that is with depression or a part of mixed mania (also called dysphoric mania).
How can you tell the difference between stress and bipolar anxiety? Here are a few clues:
Stress is the effect of a cause. This means that you can relate the stress to something specific, such as trouble in a relationship or trouble at work. Stress is the body’s response to a stimulus. You will be able to identify why you are stressed.
Bipolar anxiety is episodic and can exist for no reason at all. It simply shows up, and you have no idea why on earth you are so upset and obsessive and worried and have so much trouble breathing. You will either be depressed while this anxiety is around or in a dysphoric episode. You can have low-energy anxiety and high-energy anxiety, but the symptoms will still be the same.
Bipolar anxiety can be triggered, but it many cases it exists in what I call “free-form.” This means it’s just there, and you can’t pinpoint exactly why it happens. If you don’t like your job and feel upset every time you get to the office, this is stress. It’s a cause and an effect. If you like your job, but for some reason, on the way to work you feel something is wrong and you don’t want to go inside and then you have trouble breathing, this describes anxiety.
In my experience, anxiety always affects the breath; stress doesn’t always affect the breath. Thus, one of the main treatments for anxiety is breathing in a way that balances your oxygen and carbon dioxide. This can be achieved by staying calm and breathing slowly and deliberately.
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at JulieFast.com and BipolarHappens.com.
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