Written by:Meaghan Rice, PsyD., LPC

Published On: May 24, 2022

Medically reviewed by: Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Reviewed On: May 24, 2022

Updated On: June 23, 2023


Watching someone you love live with bipolar disorder can be painful. While there are ways you can help them learn to better cope with bipolar disorder symptoms, it’s also important that you learn to take care of yourself as well.

Keep reading to learn how to help someone with bipolar disorder while protecting yourself and your relationship.

1. Educate Yourself on Bipolar Disorder

Knowing how to help someone with bipolar disorder means educating yourself. Learn about the nuances of this mental health condition, including what causes bipolar disorder, the symptoms, and how to recognize behavioral patterns. Understanding how to identify these things early on is key to effectively helping your loved one learn to cope.

2. Listen to Your Loved One

People with bipolar disorder often have confusing thoughts that make them doubt themselves. Your loved one needs to understand that they have you, and that you’re willing and want to listen to them, that you care about the challenges they face daily.

While you listen, be mindful of your own attitude and responses. Remember, you may not be able to fully comprehend what they go through on a daily basis. Be careful not to get offended or be angry with them as they express their feelings.

3. Take Care of Yourself

If you don’t spend enough time on yourself, your spirit will suffer, and you’ll be less able to give your loved one the attention they need. Self care is critical for all of us. Your health and well-being must be your top priority, otherwise you’ll be too exhausted and overwhelmed to be of any real value to anyone you try to help. Don’t be afraid to make time to pamper yourself periodically.

4. Seek Support

As you’re learning how to deal with bipolar disorder, it’s important for you to have support as well. It’s OK to ask family members, loved ones, friends, or a professional (like a therapist) for help when you need somebody to lean on. Don’t let the fact that you’re trying to help one person interfere with other personal relationships in your life.

5. Know Your Own Limits

Sometimes, people with bipolar disorder symptoms can be difficult to support, especially if they’re not being proactive in their treatment plan. Keep in mind, bipolar disorder is a condition that lasts for life. There’s no magical way to immediately alleviate the symptoms, no matter how hard you try.

To ensure your own health and well-being, you need to set limits on what you are and are not willing to endure as you try to help. It’s not only OK to set limits for your own mental health, but it’s actually critical for your own long-term happiness.

6. Monitor Your Reactions

It’s essential to watch what you say and how you act around your loved one. It can be easy to want to place blame for their radical mood swings. It takes patience and understanding, but try to remember that people who live with bipolar disorder can’t always remain in emotional control. They often even recognize this in themselves, and may truly wish it were different, yet still struggle greatly with self-control and mood swings at times.

If you’re feeling frustrated, pause a beat, take a breath, and remember that this isn’t their fault. How you react can be instrumental when it comes to how to treat bipolar in their ability to manage their disorder, so being as calm and non-reactive as possible will be important.

7. Stress Management is Key

When a loved one has bipolar disorder, a depressive episode or manic episode can become incredibly stressful. Put an emphasis on stress management for both of you. Try practicing things like:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Daily exercise
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Massage
  • Getting enough restful sleep
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Staying well-hydrated

8. Consider Collaborating with a Therapist

Psychotherapy (talk therapy) is commonly used as a bipolar disorder treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common therapy for bipolar disorder, but family-focused therapy can also be quite helpful.

Therapy helps you and your loved one understand bipolar disorder better so you can learn how to handle bipolar disorder in relationships, and begin to develop effective coping strategies for long-term symptom management.

9. Notice Symptoms

If you’re trying to help someone with bipolar disorder, it’s important to be aware of the possible symptoms they may exhibit, including:

  • Manic symptoms like high energy, rapid speech, and grandiose thinking
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, or shame
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Problems falling or staying asleep
  • Difficulties completing tasks
  • Sadness and depression
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Changes in appetite
  • Having a hard time focusing

It can be difficult to know how to help someone with bipolar depression or mania. One day you’ll see them in a great space, in a happy, positive mood, taking care of things on their To-Do list. This might even go on for several days or weeks. However, they may experience behavior and mood change rapidly, often with no forewarning and seemingly no reason. They may suddenly have depressive symptoms or even suicidal thoughts.

Educate yourself on bipolar symptoms, and then be on the watch for any changes in your loved one’s behavior that might indicate a bipolar episode is coming.

10. Establish Boundaries

Understanding that someone with bipolar disorder can have the types of rapid behavioral shifts described above means it’s especially important to set boundaries. Setting healthy boundaries about what you will and won’t accept, participate in, or endure protects both you and the ones you love.

The bottom line is you cannot allow your own mental health to be adversely affected in an effort to help your loved one cope with their symptoms of bipolar disorder. Boundaries can serve as a layer of protection for you and everyone else in your life.

11. Protect Your Relationship

Someone with bipolar disorder can experience challenging emotions, including hostility, risky behavior, irritability, and explosive anger. These types of emotions can lead to serious relationship difficulties.

This is why it’s so important to protect your relationship by learning the nuances of such a complicated mental health condition as bipolar disorder. Identifying bipolar symptoms, as well as triggers to those symptoms, can help you support your loved one while they do the deep internal work to manage their condition. Ultimately, this can serve your relationship.

12. Be Patient

If you love someone with bipolar disorder and want to help them manage their symptoms, you should be prepared for a long-term battle. It won’t be easy. They’re going to have to retrain thought patterns and emotional responses, and that’s going to take time and intention.

If you’re really in it for the long haul, expect some serious ups and downs. That said, don’t lose hope for achieving a healthy, fun, and enjoyable life together — it can happen. It just may take some time.

13. Gently Support Medication

Bipolar disorder treatment usually consists of bipolar medications including antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, lithium, beta channel blockers, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics, among others. Part of understanding how to help someone with bipolar disorder means gently encouraging them to adhere to their pharmaceutical treatment protocol.

Together, with your loved one, learn about side effects you should be aware of so you can better understand how to treat bipolar disorder. Remember that medications aren’t always tolerated the same by everyone. Many people with bipolar disorder must experiment with various drugs before they find the one that yields the best results for them.

It’s common for those living with bipolar disorder to skip or stop taking their medications on a regular basis, especially when they’re feeling good. However, abruptly stopping many prescription medications can cause unexpected, harmful side effects or behaviors.

Check-in with your loved one and their doctor often to understand the medications being used. If it seems what they’re taking is causing harmful effects, even if your loved one doesn’t recognize it, speak to their doctor about what you’re seeing. They may need to change the dosage or try a new medication altogether.

14. Help Them Find Treatment

People with bipolar disorder occasionally tend to avoid or resist seeking treatment. If this sounds like your loved one, you can try to help them by finding a qualified therapist or doctor who has experience in treating bipolar disorder. Be encouraging and positive, and try to let them see that getting help is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s a strength.

15. Show Support

Be supportive and let your loved one know you’re there for them. Tell them how important they are to you and ask what you can do. Sympathize with them while encouraging them to be proactive about their treatment and self-healing.

Suggest self-care exercises and bipolar disorder natural treatment like mindfulness meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or just getting outside and going for a walk. Even something soothing, like taking a hot bath, can help to reset the mind and better-manage stress. Above all, never dismiss their emotions, even if they seem far-fetched.

16. Spend Time with Them

One of the best things we can do for anyone in life, whether they live with bipolar disorder or not, is to give them our time. Knowing how to help someone with bipolar disorder can involve spending time with them without focusing on their condition. Enjoy activities together that encourage holistic, healthy, and happy fun.

17. Make a What-If Plan

If your loved one’s behavior becomes erratic and destructive, you need to know what steps to take. Have an action plan for any situation. This might include removing objects they could use for self-harm, hiding car keys if they’re overmedicated and threatening to drive, or being prepared to contact emergency services.

18. Be Prepared to Intervene

Unfortunately, sometimes people with bipolar disorder will lose control from time to time. If your loved one is suicidal, immediately get help. You can take them to the nearest Emergency Room, call 911, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They offer English and Spanish support from trained counselors 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Even if your loved one resents you at first for trying to help them, in time, they’ll come to see why you had to seek outside or professional guidance.

“Bipolar disorder can be fairly complicated to navigate, but there’s research that suggests reflective listening, finding helpful resources, connecting our loved ones with the community, and searching for professionals — both psychiatrists and mental health providers — can combat the level of intensity of the symptoms.”

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD.), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Meaghan Rice

Knowing how to help someone with bipolar disorder is an evolving process. Be prepared to worry about your loved one, to be upset with them from time to time, to feel unable to understand them occasionally, or even to feel guilty because their symptom management doesn’t seem to be improving adequately.

Again, be supportive of your loved one, but remember how important it is to take care of yourself, too. Set boundaries. Even though some might be hard to enforce, they’re still very necessary. If you’re committed to helping someone with bipolar disorder, understand that there will be some demanding work.

Routine in-person or online therapy sessions with a licensed therapist who specializes in bipolar disorder can change the course of the future of your relationship. With the diligent practice of proper coping strategies and the right medication, there’s a lot of hope for a bright, contented future.

See References

Meaghan Rice, PsyD., LPC

Meaghan Rice is a mental health consultant specializing in professionals who are looking to close the gap between where they are and where they envision themselves being. With a decade of experience in the mental health field, working in a variety of different capacities, Dr. Rice has found her niche amidst the therapist, consultant, and trainer roles.

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