fbpx Understanding and Living With a Mood Disorder

Understanding and Living With a Mood Disorder

These conditions are unpredictable but can be managed with treatment and support.
Anna Herod
Written by

Anna Herod

A mood disorder is a mental health condition that causes intense mood swings, including shifts between manic and depressive states. When left untreated—because of the dramatic fluctuation between emotional states they cause—mood disorders can get in the way of day-to-day activities, responsibilities and relationships.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 9.7 percent of U.S. adults suffer from a mood disorder in a given year, while an estimated 21.4 percent will experience a mood disorder at some point during their lifetime. Some of the more common mood disorders include depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder.

Knowing when you need help
Illustration by Josh Christensen
Illustration by Josh Christensen

"If you think you might be struggling with a mood disorder, being able to recognize the signs that you may need some support is important," said Roshell Hanse, a licensed associate professional counselor and adjunct professor at Barry University in Miami, Florida.

"When distress is impacting your life, that's when you know you need help," Hanse added. "So that's when you're not able to function at your typical level, when it's starting to impact the way that you're taking care of yourself: Your eating, your sleeping, the way you're engaging and communicating with those in your life, your work dynamic or school dynamic. You really just start to notice that you are either isolating yourself and/or not connecting with others the way that you typically would."

If you have a mood disorder and begin to feel isolated or like a manic or depressive episode is coming on, confiding in your support system and seeking professional help is your first step to effective treatment.

"I wouldn't say that just because someone is family or a friend [you should] go check in with them, but to ensure you feel safe and comfortable with that person to express the vulnerable side that you're dealing with," Hanse explained. "And then I would highly encourage you to seek out professional help—whether that is a social worker, a mental health therapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist—because all of those professions are different and can provide quality care."

Treatment for mood disorders typically includes a combination of talk therapy and medication, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Recognizing your triggers
Illustration by Josh Christensen
Illustration by Josh Christensen

With a condition such as bipolar disorder, individuals often find themselves oscillating between extreme highs and extreme lows. One of the first steps to identifying what triggers these episodes is knowing what different emotional states look like in real life.

"If you're in a manic state, you'll notice that you have a lot more energy, you're very social, you're very productive," Hanse said. "It's typically like an all-or-nothing feeling, where you're giving everything you have and then when you find yourself in those lower spaces, you'll notice that you're more withdrawn and falling back off of the routines that you had created for yourself."

A telltale sign that a bipolar episode of any variety is occurring is when your behavior becomes extreme.

"Typically the episodes will happen in weeks," Hanse said. "So you'll notice during the onset, for example, you might start to think like, 'Oh, I don't really want to work out.' And then the next week you'll notice that you're working out, like, four or five times a week. These episodes are typically marked by the shifting in the extremities of your behaviors."

Once you recognize what a manic or depressive episode looks like in your own life, you can start to notice when it's setting in, and try to pinpoint and identify what triggered it.

"For some people, the trigger may be a lack of sleep," Hanse explained. "For some people, it's a change in their routine. For [others], it's a change in their relationship. So it really just depends on what that person finds important to them or valuable at that time that they're noticing they're not receiving."

During treatment, a mental health professional can help you identify your triggers so that you can start to understand your patterns and how to overcome the struggles they present.

Supporting a partner
Illustration by Josh Christensen
Illustration by Josh Christensen

If your partner has a mood disorder, it can be difficult to know how to best support them when they need it most. While you can't provide them with the same help that a mental health professional can, you can take steps to make them feel grounded and help them know they're not alone.

"When your partner opens up to you about their depression, you'll likely instinctually want to make them feel better. But it's important to resist the urge to say things like, 'You're just having a bad day,' because it can come across as dismissive and invalidating," said Lindsay Zilling, a registered behavior technician and a doctoral candidate in the psychology program at Hawai'i Pacific University.

"If a friend or loved one has opened up to you about their struggles, they may not be looking for your opinion," Zilling added. "Let their comments sit with you before responding, consider how they must be feeling at the moment, and let them know that you have the capacity to be a safe space for them to talk. Rather than reducing their experience to the happenings of a 'bad day,' give them the opportunity to share by acknowledging the importance of recognizing when things get tough. You might ask 'What can I do right now to support you?' or 'What do you need from me right now?'"

When navigating mental health issues in a relationship, communication is paramount and couples therapy can help.

"Couples therapy and/or family therapy can be greatly beneficial because it provides an opportunity for the partner or the family members to get educated about the mental illness their loved one is dealing with," said Jon Lasser, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist and professor at Texas State University's School of Psychology. "They learn more about symptoms and treatment, and they can have more empathy so that they can understand it better."

Couples therapy is a great place to set healthy boundaries.

"Boundaries are definitely extremely important because sometimes as caretakers, they provide so much care for the person in need, that they also start to neglect themselves, which later can lead to resentment and a breakdown in communication, rather than a buildup in communication," Hanse said. "Also, you want to be mindful that supporting the partner who is struggling does not reinforce the idea that they are unable to manage their own emotions. That reinforces the role of you needing to be there without them learning how to manage and self-soothe themselves."

Be kind to yourself
Illustration by Josh Christensen
Illustration by Josh Christensen

"Unfortunately it can be easy to connect your mental health struggles with your self-esteem and self-worth," said David Schlosz, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor who works with children and adults at his private practice in addition to teaching at St. Edward's University and Texas State University. "But it's important to remember that you are more than just the challenges you face.

"Labels can make us think that's all there is to us," Schlosz continued. "You have to realize that we're complex. None of us are at any time just one thing. We are all multiple things at any one moment in time. To me, that's really helpful because if your identity is based purely on your diagnosis or your struggle, it can become really unhealthy for you."

Your mental health affects relationships with other people and the relationship you have with yourself, too. So it's important to make sure that those effects are positive.

"It's easy to feel inadequate compared to the standard of normalcy you see in your friends and loved ones. But one of the best things you can do for your own mental health is to be authentic and to show up as you are," Hanse said.

"I think the way to break the stigma of mental health is to let people know that it's not for quote-unquote crazy people, it's for people who are struggling," Hanse explained. "And it's for people who want to advance and grow and self-explore. I think mental health gets this title that it's only for those who are in distress. But caring about your mental health can also help you learn more about yourself or learn how to interact and connect with other people. It's really more like a growth process rather than how it's been stipulated in the media and portrayed for years."