Bipolar Disorder Symptoms and Anxiety

I’ve seen a number of articles and research about what role anxiety plays in bipolar disorder, and it seems like those with bipolar disorder are more likely to have anxiety.

Personally, I can’t help but wonder why the two are distinguished from one another in the first place.

Anxiety is a symptom, right? The way hallucinations are a symptom, or feeling hostile, or detached, or suicidal. I think many people would argue that anxiety isn’t a mood, or a state of being… but to that I say you haven’t felt what I have. Doesn’t one feel anxious? When I do, it is a most overwhelming place.

Anyway, the medical attitude toward “mental illness” is all about these symptoms being broken down into categories. Sometimes they are broken down by duration, by frequency, by relationship to one another, and other times these categories seem to be blobs of randomness.

I can’t help but wonder if this breakdown helps us connect the dots, or if it makes treatment of each of our symptoms more difficult by creating new diagnoses, new dots, and new sets of dots that need to be connected.

In this fashion, anxiety stands on its own, apart from bipolar disorder.

Realistically, it seems like anxiety (which is about having the symptom of anxiety), major depression (which is about having depressive symptoms), and even obsessive compulsive disorder (which is about, you guessed it, obsessions and compulsions) make sense in the fact that they seem to focus on a pretty straightforward symptom, or set of symptoms.

That is where things get fuzzy, because disorders like bipolar disorder encompass a ridiculous number of symptoms. Depression, mania, suicidality, changes in energy level, psychosis, mixed episodes (which are neither here nor there), and whatever subsequent symptoms these larger symptoms contain. It might be more fruitful to label bipolar disorder as a disorder about mood swings, but there is so much more wrapped up in it that it seems like more of a blanketing term than any real answer.

It might be a little redundant, but I must say things aren’t particularly straightforward.

On top of that, anxiety is found to be increasingly common in people with bipolar disorder.

People ask me a lot how my anxiety interacts with the bipolar symptoms. To that, I have to say that there is no distinction when something happens that indicates, “oh, this feeling or action is because of anxiety, while that one is because of bipolar.”

In my life, I have one set of symptoms. I do not see this as several groups of symptoms, or even several disorders (though that is how I have to identify my symptoms to those in the medical profession). There is mania, mixed, depression, and a fourth arm; anxiety. On top of that there are obsessions and compulsions that come and go as they please. They are all coming out of the same beast… and it seems like trying to treat them as though I am three people with three disorders is total rubbish.

I am a woman with a series of symptom. It doesn’t matter to me how others want to categorize them, because I see them as one unit, all working together against me. All symptoms are created equal, and they are all on equal ground to me.

On top of that, each individual has their own set of symptoms. I have met people with symptoms that looked almost like identical twins to my symptoms, and I’ve met others with bipolar disorder who experience something I barely felt I could identify with. Then, I am left with the question things always seem to come back to…

Are these categories really helping us? Are they helping?

Because trying to (mentally) remove something like anxiety from the goings on of bipolar disorder is impossible for me. They are integrated, they trigger one another, and sometimes “anxiety” will blossom into a full-fledged mixed episode on its own. Anxiety is also often a symptom of depression, or a mixed episode, so how can I disregard a symptom of another, totally different symptom?

I guess… as much as I learn and try to understand (about the medical world of mental health) I seem to understand even less. But, then again, it is much easier to know what is happening under my own skin, in my own skull, and right before my own eyes.

8 responses to “Bipolar Disorder Symptoms and Anxiety

  1. Very well written.!

  2. Agreed! The same can be said for ADD symptoms and OCD symptoms. I think there is a lot of overlap between symptoms. Too many times patients get multiple diagnoses when if we just looked at the larger picture, we could see it’s all part of this giant, life-consuming monster of a disorder called bipolar.

  3. I totally agree. I’ve had doctors that have seemed obsessed with my anxiety (and never talked about my mood), and others that don’t care at all if I am anxious, just as long as I don’t feel too high or low.
    I’ve known people with my ‘brand’ of BP, and those with different flavours.

    I think the shopping list of symptoms is for the people who don’t understand us, and they need to quantify the disease somehow – maybe for insurance reasons?

    I dig your post and I feel your angst!

  4. I so agree, and find it freeing to do so. For whatever reason, life seems simpler and I am able to get comfortable with myself with this type of thinking. Thank you

  5. I have the same experience with anxiety, like you said: “oh, this feeling or action is because of anxiety, while that one is because of bipolar.”

    There is no distinction for me either, and it seems ridiculous for anyone to try to make one, most of all doctors. I think maybe instead of trying to distinguish these different symptoms, which are probably just different manifestations of some underlying cause in different people, they should focus on the underlying cause, which might not “look” like anything.

    I often fell there is actually nothing wrong with us, but that we are simply designed differently than others and our bodies and minds don’t work well in this “modern” society, where everything is so hurried and based on how much work one gets done. I think in the past there was less to do, and so less stress and probably folks like us wouldn’t get the sort of reactions we do now. And of course if this is the case it’s not about us at all, but about them! 🙂 And they could stop trying to classify us and instead try to slow things down for us (and for them too), but I suppose that might take some doing to get done.

    • @QP: I do agree that modern society probably causes a lot of stress for people, and pushes some to a breaking point. I don’t necessarily agree that there was less stress in the past. People had to work very hard for survival, and there were no services for people who could not handle the stress of life; there was a societal pressure to suck it up and press on despite how damaging it may be to one’s psyche.

  6. “are these categories helping us?” … I think the only ones who really need the categories are the doctors and the insurance companies. I think many of us patients understand which symptoms are present, regardless of which heading they are under. I don’t need a doctor’s note to tell me I have symptoms of an anxiety disorder in addition to the bipolar. I just try to manage all my symptoms as best I can, no matter what label someone uses.

  7. I like how you expressed it – experiencing all symptoms as one set of symptoms. I really struggle with separating out which symptoms are bipolar, ADHD, and anxiety in terms of underlying cause.

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