Identifying and Processing Bipolar Emotions

Author: Matthew Palmieri


Before I committed myself to understanding the underlining emotions characteristic of bipolar, I’d often oscillate between extreme irritability, and a kind of manic frenzy jumping from one task to another without any real consideration about how my behavior would impact my relationships with coworkers and loved ones.

It was no way to live and certainly no way to cope with the symptoms.

My psychiatrist at the time hadn’t really dealt with patients with bipolar and I wasn’t willing to do my part to adequately understand the illness and find a care team that had experience helping manage mood disorders. So for years, nearly a decade, I lived in a state of bipolar denial.

I took my meds but anytime an extremely stressful situation built up or my insurance altered the coverage I could receive, I’d retreat back into a kind of blacked out state.

It wasn’t until things hit a manic crescendo, probably my worst psychotic break, did I finally say, ‘This has to stop.’

I read about how crucial a holistic treatment plan was and discovered all the symptoms paramount to the illness, including irritability, grandiosity, and psychotic delusions. I was so thankful and grateful that I didn’t have to feel crazy and that I wasn’t alone.

I now understood the frame work and gave it my best shot to adhere to proper treatment. I have since become more in tune with my emotions.

Of course to this day, my emotions can be difficult to process and accept, especially when not looking at my illness with rose colored glasses.

Underneath my irritability, there is often a sadness that I struggle to let go of, especially after a manic phase. Challenging this emotion, as well as persistent depression — what is likely underneath that emotion — can be difficult. However, in recognizing the manic/depressive pattern I can slow down, attempt a meditation session, likely in my car on break at work (full disclosure) and then get much closer to looking at these emotions from more distance.

Once I am able to name the emotion, I can witness it, challenge it, and identify the pattern.

If I am ‘up’ or in a manic phase, I have pressured speech, much more likely to take part in creative tasks and intensely focus on goal-oriented behavior. In other words, I can be extremely difficult to be around because I am so self centered and feel such a compulsion to let myself and my emotions go.

Yet through this identification, this kind of distancing, I can start to reframe my thinking as a result of my bipolar, and not necessarily what life just happens to be like.

I can:

-Name the emotion

-Identify the trigger

-Notice the behavior related to the thought pattern

-Challenge or reframe the emotion within the context of my mood and my recovery

Of course these things are easier said than done, especially when I’m going through a certain level of work related stress or really struggle to focus on mindfulness.

However, if I can contextualize the emotion as a biproduct of my illness, it’s easier to forgive myself in the present, as well as be kind to myself for my distructive past behavior.

When I was lost, not considering my life framed by bipolar, I let my illness wreak havoc on my life.

Even though I am still in recovery, I am more likely to ask, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ instead of letting my irritability or mania steal the show.

It also helps to have positive affirmations, daily exercise, a consistent routine, and an almost religious adherence to at least 7-8 hours of sleep, all the while looking objectively at how far I’ve come. Then I am able to begin closing the gap on my manic spending and give myself credit for continually working hard, achieving my goals, and simply not giving up and giving in to this illness.

We are all a work in progress but when I take an active part in treatment and above all accept my bipolar mood swings, I can be stable and my outlook on the future is brighter.

Remember although you have to take responsibility for your mood disorder, it isn’t your fault. There can be such an extreme response to our emotions especially if we feel like people don’t get it, but think about how accomplished you feel when you notice the trigger, feel the emotion and find ways to cope and therefore let it pass, without letting it take the wheel.

These are healthy ways to deal with negative emotion and it’s ok to say, not today.

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