Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder in which people experience alternating states of “highs” and “lows.” The highs are called manic states (or mania) and the lows are called depressive episodes (or depression). Bipolar disorder is considered by the American Psychological Association to be a sort of bridge between disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

Manic episodes include a range of symptoms such as high energy or activity, a decreased need for sleep, impulsive decision making, feelings of grandiosity and psychosis. Depressed episodes are characterized by feeling sad or worthless, a lack of interest in activities that one usually enjoys, low energy levels, difficulty sleeping, the inability to do simple things and thinking about suicide or death.

Bipolar disorder occurs on a spectrum. How symptoms are experienced differ from person to person. Some people don’t experience full manic episodes, but go through “hypomanic” periods, which is essentially less-severe mania. Other people “rapid cycle” and experience very quick, intense alternating periods of depression and mania.

While these states can seem to occur randomly and without reason for some people, there are bipolar triggers that can lead to these states. Oftentimes, episodes of mania or depression are triggered by specific events.

What Causes a Bipolar Episode?

Generally speaking, bipolar disorder develops as a result of a combination of genetics and environmental risk factors such as childhood trauma or another period of high stress. While the genetic factors of bipolar are not yet completely understood, it is clear that there are a variety of bipolar episode triggers.

Common Bipolar Triggers

What are common bipolar triggers? Why does a manic or depressive episode start? Some of the most common and problematic bipolar disorder triggers can be separated into groups:

  • Sleep Disturbances: Sleep disturbances are warning signs of both mania and depression. In one study, less than three hours of sleep was associated with a change in mood in patients with bipolar disorder.
  • Life-Changing Events: There are many life-changing events that can serve as a bipolar trigger. For example, giving birth to a child, getting divorced and even falling in love can trigger bipolar disorder.
  • Seasonal Changes: Changes in the seasons have been associated with mood disorders, most notably seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder has been proposed by some to be a variation of bipolar disorder. Changes in mood, such as those that occur during a bipolar episode, may be related to seasons due to changes in light, which influence circadian rhythms within the brain and body.
  • Stress: Stress is a common bipolar trigger. Stress can be a result of anything from taking a test to going through a breakup or divorce. Stressful life events and general stress are associated with the depressive side of bipolar disorder.
  • Trauma: While any trauma (which is essentially severe stress) can trigger a bipolar episode, childhood trauma is associated with severe bipolar clinical symptoms. Rapid cycling, in particular, is strongly linked with sexual abuse.
  • Drugs or Alcohol Use: The use of drugs or alcohol can also trigger a bipolar episode, especially a manic episode.

Recognizing Bipolar Triggers and Warning Signs

There are many factors that trigger bipolar episodes. Each person living with bipolar disorder will have their own specific triggers they are more susceptible to and every person will display warning signs differently. Over time, a person will come to recognize their own bipolar triggers and warning signs.

In one study, “staying well” was associated with bipolar patients being mindful of their illness and warning signs. This mindfulness allowed them to develop an individual stay-well plan, including intervention strategies to prevent episodes.

Some warning signs might include:

  • Insomnia (sleep disturbances)
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Impulsive behaviors and decision making
  • Feeling sad
  • Decreased (or increased) energy

Remember, the warning signs of bipolar disorder will differ based on whether a manic or depressive episode is about to begin.

Managing Bipolar Triggers

Managing bipolar triggers is hard, but it can be done. How to manage bipolar triggers will differ from person to person, but the best way to prevent bipolar episodes is to manage and minimize stress.

Some tips for managing stress include:

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Exercise
  • Get more sleep
  • Try relaxation and mindfulness techniques.

People also manage their bipolar disorder through a combination of medication and therapy. While medications (typically mood stabilizers in the case of bipolar disorder) help many people, they are most effective when combined with therapy.

Some people turn to substances in an attempt to self-manage their bipolar disorder. Such self-management of psychological conditions is dangerous.