Bipolar disorder and alcohol have a close and complex relationship. Not many health disorders are as closely linked as bipolar and alcoholism. Often, individuals with this condition use alcohol as a means of self-medication and a way to mitigate associated adverse mental states such as depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity.
Bipolar disorder and alcohol addiction commonly co-occur. In fact, some research has revealed that most persons with bipolar disorder will develop an alcohol use disorder at some point during their lives. Some estimates suggest that up to 43 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder have some type of alcohol use disorder at any given time.
Many believe bipolar disorder references someone experiencing happiness one moment and sadness or anger the next as if the person turned on or off a switch. However, this assumption may be far away from the reality of bipolar disorder. Feelings of hopelessness can occur that fluctuate to intense feelings of happiness or numbness. It may seem like a neverending back and forth battle, but it is much more to each person who experiences this potentially debilitating mental health condition.
People who experience bipolar disorder often feel out of control of their life. Unsure of what to do next or how to feel when an episode transpires can make the possibility of turning to alcohol use a very appealing solution in relieving these unwanted emotional symptoms.
Initially, alcohol consumption can help calm nerves, especially in social environments. It can temporarily relieve the adverse symptoms of bipolar disorder, yet it increases the likelihood of exacerbating the disorder over time.
Types of Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar I Disorder
Bipolar I Disorder is an intense state of the condition. A mixed state of mind often occurs in this form of the disorder with intense excitability or euphoria.
Unfortunately, episodes of happiness deteriorate as it is followed by profound sadness and severe depression. Bipolar I is characterized by mania, a state where affected individuals may be hyperactive for time, finding themselves less able to correctly interpret their emotions and their association with the world around them. In extreme cases, this disconnect is sometimes also associated with episodes that appear to have elements of psychosis.
Bipolar II Disorder
Bipolar II disorder is a generally less intense state of mind than bipolar I disorder but still comes with extreme feelings. This disorder also induces elevated moods of happiness but does not reach the high manic stages of bipolar I disorder. Instead, bipolar II is typified by hypomania, where affected persons may encounter intense emotions but do not tend to lose touch with reality. Because depression is associated with the condition frequently, bipolar II disorder is often misdiagnosed as depression.
Bipolar Not Otherwise Specified (BD-NOS)
BD-NOS is more challenging to diagnose due to its erratic patterns of feelings and behaviors. These patterns do not fit nicely into specific labels of the condition, lacking a more efficient way to categorize this similar disorder. Bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BD-NOS) is a diagnosis that does not fall within the other established subtypes. This form of bipolar disorder is also sometimes referred to as “subthreshold.”
Rapid Cycling Bipolar
Rapid cycling is a potential aspect of bipolar disorder that can make individuals feel their emotions are spinning out of control and alternating from one mental state to the next on a seemingly constant and unyielding roller coaster. Diagnosed as at least four episodes of mania, hypomania, or depressive episodes a year, rapid cycling can provoke abrupt and unpredictable mood swings, making a person feel as if they’ve lost total control of their thoughts and emotions.
Moreover, this form of bipolar disorder is known for spiraling into excessive episodes, followed by somewhat stabilized feelings for a period until the cycle begins to ramp up again.
The Intertwining of Bipolar Disorder and Alcohol Abuse
Research has shown that individuals with bipolar disorder have a 60 percent likelihood of developing alcohol abuse problems at some point in life.
Alcohol is known to exacerbate bipolar disorder due to its sedative effects. It works similarly in the brain as some depressant medications such as benzodiazepines like Xanax or Ativan. Due to its ability to boost dopamine levels, however, alcohol can also significantly increase mania’s intensity, which many who experience bipolar disorder find extremely pleasant and rewarding.
Although alcohol can worsen the adverse effects of bipolar disorder in either direction, flaming the fire with each sip. Drinking alcohol while using a bipolar medication can turn one drink into many, especially when drinking on an empty stomach. Alcohol can also destabilize bipolar disorder, as control over emotion is given up in exchange for imbibing.
What Drives Bipolar-Affected Individuals to Drink?
Regardless of blackouts and the unwanted hangovers leading to mixed intensified feelings that can manifest once alcohol is eliminated from the body, many persons with bipolar disorder still choose to consume alcohol regularly. For others, the relaxed feelings and the heightened mania related to bipolar disorder far outweigh the adverse effects that alcohol can have on one’s mood.
For those who do continue to drink, the intensified high alcohol can induce may seem worth it despite the lowest lows that can also occur. Alcohol can temporarily relieve the anxiety and the ups and downs bipolar disorder can provoke. It could be that for some, milder drugs don’t appear to eliminate all the symptoms many feel with bipolar disorder. Additionally, many people with bipolar disorder find that the side effects of certain medications are so undesirable that they would rather self-medicate with alcohol and deal with the consequences later.
Although alcohol can provide relief from bipolar disorder, it also imperils an individual with the condition, making the effects of the illness more severe and increases the risks over time. It is not recommended for individuals with bipolar disorder to drink alcohol, as unpredictable and unwanted episodes can occur from any amount consumed.
Alcohol and Bipolar Disorder Treatment
Bipolar and alcohol use disorders are sometimes treated individually. However, it is almost always more effective to treat both conditions simultaneously rather than have the unaddressed illness contribute to a reoccurrence of symptoms associated with the treated condition.
Although there is not much research conducted dedicated to devising approaches that can effectively treat both these disorders concurrently, behavioral therapy is often an integral element for addressing any mental health disorder. Learning to cope with bipolar disorder correctly and healthily can influence wiser choices such as choosing to abstain from alcohol use.
While many persons who have bipolar disorder turn to alcohol to bury the disorder’s symptoms, some medications can be prescribed to lessen the symptoms associated with the uncontrollable state experienced, reducing the urge to consume alcohol as a coping mechanism. Of note, many bipolar medications can react adversely with alcohol, causing intense hangovers, among other unwanted effects.
Many residential and outpatient programs, such as Just Believe Recovery, help individuals manage both disorders, ideally diminishing cravings for alcohol and stabilizing bipolar disorder. We provide a wide variety of therapeutic interventions and activities intended to directly address both addictions and mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, concurrently.