Understanding Bipolar Disorder and Alcoholism: Essential Insights

There is a strong connection between bipolar disorder and alcoholism. People diagnosed with bipolar disorder have significantly higher rates of alcohol use and problematic drinking. This is a serious health problem for many reasons, including the fact that drinking can make the symptoms of mania and depression worse. While the connection is not completely understood, these two conditions can be treated together and successfully managed for a positive outcome.

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness, as is alcoholism. When the two co-occur, each one makes the other worse. If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and also struggle with drinking, you need to address both issues. Treatment is available and can be effective, especially when the connection between drinking and bipolar is explored. Residential care may be best to provide you with a safe place to focus on learning how to stop drinking and how to manage your moods.

This is a chronic, lifelong mental illness that causes severe mood swings. Previously called manic depression, bipolar disorder triggers low mood episodes of depression and high-energy cycles of mania. There are different types of bipolar, and every individual’s experience is a little different. For instance, some people have a less severe type of mania, called hypomania. The number of mood cycles experienced each year can vary as well.

The mood swings and symptoms of this condition can be extremely disruptive to all areas of your life, from work and school to relationships. While bipolar disorder is not curable, it is manageable. It’s important to get a diagnosis so that you can benefit from therapy, medication, and other treatment strategies. Because of its severity, residential treatment is often used for bipolar disorder.

Bipolar and Alcohol Use Disorder – Is There a Connection?

Alcohol use disorder is problematic use of alcohol that is out of control, causes physical or mental health issues, and that interferes with your life in significant and distressing ways. Also known as alcoholism, this behavioral health condition can have serious consequences, including poor health, damaged relationships, and legal problems.

It has long been known that people who struggle with mental illnesses are more likely to also misuse substances, and that people with substance use disorders are at an increased risk for mental illness. But there is a specific and strong connection between bipolar disorder and alcoholism:

According to a review of multiple related studies from 2013, 45 percent of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder also struggle with alcohol use disorder. There are also high rates of bipolar disorder and symptoms in people who have alcohol use disorder. Those with bipolar I, the type of bipolar that causes full-blown manic episodes, have a higher rate of alcoholism than people with bipolar II and less severe mania.

Why Are Alcoholism Rates So High for People With Bipolar Disorder?

Exactly why people with bipolar disorder are more likely to struggle with drinking is not known. However, it is likely a complicated connection with multiple contributing factors. One possibility that probably explains much of the connection is that people use alcohol as a way to cope with the symptoms of bipolar disorder. This is known as self-medication.

Another idea is that the connection relates mostly to the reckless behaviors triggered by mania. When you experience a manic episode, you are more likely to engage in activities that are self-destructive and impulsive, like drinking too much. Over time, this can develop into an alcohol use disorder. The fact that rates of alcoholism are lower in people with depression than in those with bipolar disorder lends substance to the idea that mania is a major contributing factor.

The connection runs both ways. It may be that drinking heavily triggers symptoms of bipolar disorder. It may not cause the condition, but alcohol could bring out symptoms if you are already predisposed to bipolar disorder. Drinking may also worsen symptoms, leading to a diagnosis you may not have otherwise gotten.

Finally, there are common risk factors for bipolar disorder and alcohol use disorder: past traumatic experiences, major life changes or stresses, and using other substances. There may even be a common genetic factor that links drinking behaviors and bipolar disorder.

The Consequences of Alcoholism With Bipolar Disorder

The prevalence of alcohol use disorder in people with a bipolar diagnosis is problematic. Drinking may seem like an escape, a way to cope, and an easy way to self-medicate, but there are serious consequences. According to studies, people with bipolar who also struggle with drinking have additional challenges as compared to those who do not drink or don’t have alcohol use disorder:

  • A longer period of withdrawal from alcohol, which can make recovery and treatment more difficult
  • More severe symptoms during both depressive and manic episodes
  • A greater risk of suicide
  • Higher costs of care and a worse prognosis
  • More difficulty functioning normally in all areas of life
  • A greater chance of suffering from other mental illnesses

While it may be possible for some people to drink responsibly and without consequences with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, doing so is risky. It’s best to avoid alcohol and other substances. Each issue worsens the other.

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Drinking and Bipolar Medications

Another major issue with bipolar disorder and alcoholism is the risk of interactions between alcohol and medications. If you have been diagnosed with bipolar but are not addressing your problematic drinking, you may be taking drugs that help manage symptoms but that can interact negatively with alcohol.

For example, lithium, commonly used as a mood stabilizer, can accumulate in the body in toxic levels. Drinking alcohol while taking lithium may compound this problem. Drinking may interfere with the effectiveness of any bipolar medication, including mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.

Treating Bipolar Disorder and Alcoholism

Comorbid conditions are always more difficult to treat than a single mental illness or substance use disorder. But, when addressed and managed together, the prognosis is good. You can recover from alcoholism and use ongoing medications, therapy, and other healthy coping strategies to manage bipolar disorder.

Because of the complexity of these two conditions occurring together and the potential for serious negative consequences, residential treatment is often the recommended course. With a residential facility, you’ll benefit from having an extended period of time in a safe place to get treatment and learn how to live well with your chronic illnesses.

A good residential treatment center will also be able to provide care from a range of specialists tailored to you as an individual, so that all your needs are addressed. You can enjoy standard treatments like medical care and therapy but also alternative therapies, creative therapies, group sessions, recreation, and nutrition and exercise.

Coping with alcoholism and bipolar disorder is a major challenge. If you are facing this issue, it’s important to get a diagnosis from a mental health professional and to seek treatment. It is possible to live well with bipolar disorder and to learn how to replace drinking with healthy habits. You can stop drinking and manage and live with bipolar disorder with the right treatment plan.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.