Understanding the Triggers of Bipolar Disorder

Genetic and Environment Bipolar Disorder Triggers

Depressed young man
Depressed young man. Getty Images/Li Kim Goh/E+

Why one person develops bipolar disorder over another person is still a puzzling question. Scientists do know that the development of bipolar disorder involves a complex interaction between a person's genes and their environment.

Let's explore the triggers of bipolar disorder a bit more. This way you can take a proactive role in controlling your illness.

Your DNA as a Trigger of Bipolar Disorder

Genetics plays a big part in the development of bipolar disorder.

In fact, according to the American Psychiatric Association, 80 to 90 percent of people with bipolar disorder have a relative with either depression or bipolar disorder. While you cannot control your genetic makeup, it's important to understand that genes don't tell the whole story. It's the interplay between genes and a person's environment that scientists believe triggers the onset of bipolar disorder and future episodes.

Environmental Triggers of Depressive Episodes in Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar depression can and frequently does occur spontaneously, thanks to genetic and biological factors. But a bipolar depressive episode can also be set off by a stressful event or circumstances.

For example, a person who has never before suffered from depression may become depressed after an event like a death in the family, job loss, divorce, etc.

How stress triggers a bipolar episode is not fully understood.

But scientists do believe that the stress hormone cortisol plays a role. Stress increases the level of cortisol in the body, which causes alterations in how the brain functions and communicates. In fact, in people who have depression or bipolar disorder, cortisol levels may stay high even when stress isn't present.

While stress is a big trigger, someone with bipolar disorder may also find that smaller things can trigger depressive episodes. Reading a book that makes you sad, talking to someone who's depressed, a poor grade on a paper you thought was sure to get an A, or even catching a cold might trigger a depressive episode.

Other examples of bipolar depressive episode triggers include:

  • sleep deprivation or disruption
  • physical injury or illness
  • menstruation
  • lack of exercise
  • travel

Environmental Triggers of Manic Episodes in Bipolar Disorder

While triggers for manic and depressive episodes can be the same, there are some that are specific to manic or hypomanic episodes. According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, unique triggers of manic or hypomanic episodes include:

  • falling in love
  • recreational stimulant use
  • starting a creative project
  • late night partying
  • vacationing
  • loud music

In addition, the postpartum period and the use of an antidepressant, like an SSRI, may also trigger a manic or hypomanic episode.

What Does This Mean for Me?

Understanding what triggers your bipolar episodes will give you some control over your mental health and allow you to self-manage it.

Try thinking back to what precipitated past depressive or manic episodes. Alternatively, keep a journal to record potential triggers moving forward. Then discuss these triggers with your doctor so you can devise a plan on avoiding or coping with them in the future.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (2015). What are Bipolar Disorders? Retrieved December 6th 2015. 

Bernstein, D. A., Clarke-Stewart, A., Penner, L. A., Roy, E. J., & Wickens, C. D. (2000). Psychology (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Durand, V. M. & Barlow, D. H. (2000). Abnormal Psychology: An Introduction. Scarborough, Ontario: Wadsworth.

McGuffin, P., et al. The heritability of bipolar affective disorder and the genetic relationship to unipolar depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003 May;60(5):497-502. 

Proudfoot J et al. Triggers of mania and depression in young adults with bipolar disorder. J Affect Disord. 2012 Dec 20;143(1-3):196-202.

Proudfoot J, Doran J, Manicavasagar V, Parker G. The precipitants of manic/hypomanic episodes in the context of bipolar disorder: a review. J Affect Disord. 2011 Oct;133(3):381-7. 

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