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Many people self-medicate with alcohol for a wide range of reasons. Some people use alcohol to cope with work stress and anxiety. Others turn to alcohol use to deal with grief, depression, and other symptoms of mental illness. This tends to be the case for many people with bipolar disorder, as individuals may use alcohol as a way to work through their symptoms. However, this can be extremely dangerous.

Understanding Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is much more common than many people think. It is one of the most common mental health issues facing the U.S. today. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Bipolar disorder affects 1% to 2% of the U.S. population.” This equals nearly 5 to 6 million people with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is not a singular mental illness, it contains multiple different types. The three main subtypes are bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, and cyclothymic disorder (also called cyclothymia).

Bipolar I disorder is perhaps the most well-known, though it is believed to affect fewer people than bipolar II disorder. The primary characteristic of bipolar I is intense manic episodes followed by less severe depressive episodes. Bipolar II disorder, on the other hand, has more severe depressive episodes along with periods of “hypomania,” which are less intense than the mania experienced in bipolar I disorder. Cyclothymic disorder is characterized by cycles of mania and depression that are less severe than either bipolar I or II disorder.

The Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder

While there are different types of bipolar disorder, the signs and symptoms are often similar between them. The following are just a few of the signs and symptoms:

  • Feeling very energetic or elated that cannot otherwise be explained
  • Experiencing intense feelings of sadness, loneliness, or hopelessness
  • Having racing thoughts and trouble concentrating
  • Feeling a decreased need for sleep
  • Speaking very slowly and having trouble with memory
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Acting impulsively 
  • Losing interest in things and activities once enjoyed
  • Having thoughts of self-harm and/or having suicidal ideations.
  • Using alcohol and substances to self-medicate 

Understanding Co-Occurring Disorders

More people struggle with co-occurring disorders of addiction and mental illness than many people are aware of. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “7.7 million adults have co-occurring mental and substance use disorders… Of the 20.3 million adults with substance use disorders, 37.9% also had mental illnesses. Among the 42.1 million adults with mental illness, 18.2% also had substance use disorders.”

These statistics include people struggling with bipolar disorder and alcohol addiction. The use of alcohol with bipolar disorder can be very harmful.

The Negative Effects of Alcohol Use on Bipolar Disorder

Many people with bipolar disorder also struggle with alcohol use. As stated in Alcohol Research & Health, “Bipolar disorder and alcoholism co-occur at higher than expected rates. That is, they co-occur more often than would be expected by chance and they co-occur more often than do alcoholism and unipolar depression.”

Even before someone is aware they have bipolar disorder, alcohol use can be very dangerous. Alcohol use can make diagnosing bipolar disorder significantly more difficult, as excessive use can mimic some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Alcohol use can also trigger episodes of depression, mania, or hypomania in people with bipolar disorder. Someone who struggles with bipolar disorder may also take medications that can have side effects when taken with alcohol. Alcohol use may even cause someone to stop taking their medication altogether, believing that alcohol is an effective form of self-medication on its own. This makes getting treatment for alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder paramount.

Treating Bipolar and Alcoholism

As with other co-occurring disorders, someone with bipolar alcoholism must be treated for both issues at the same time. If one or the other issue is ignored, then there is a good chance that the untreated issue will bring the other issue out of remission down the road.

Many people treat alcohol use and bipolar disorder in a two-pronged fashion. Primarily, this includes psychotherapy, which can help to get to the underlying issues of the addiction and the disorder. The second part of treatment utilizes medication in an attempt to balance mood and reduce the intensity of distressing symptoms. This, of course, also includes abstaining from alcohol. 

The Phoenix Difference

Here at The Phoenix Recovery Center, we believe in helping individuals and their families struggling with issues of mental illness and addiction get back on their feet and start living the lives they desire and deserve. This includes those struggling with alcohol use and bipolar disorder. That is the Phoenix difference. 

Recovery is a journey, never a destination. There is no better place to start that journey than right here with us. We can help. It is our mission.

Alcohol (and illicit substances) can have serious negative effects on someone with bipolar disorder (of any type). These negative effects can lead to alcohol use disorder (AUD) and additional complications of having comorbidities. The good news is there are many effective, evidence-based treatments available for co-occurring AUD and bipolar disorder. If you feel like you or a loved one is struggling with issues of addiction, mental illness, or co-occurring disorders, we can help get you onto the positive path of recovery right away. For more information about the dangers of alcohol use and bipolar disorder, and the importance of properly treating a dual diagnosis, please reach out to The Phoenix Recovery Center today at (801) 438-3185.

The Phoenix Recovery Center
489 W. South Jordan Pkwy
Suite 400
South Jordan, UT