When Moods Change Dramatically

He sat there, propped up on one elbow, slouched in his seat. He looked like a deflated elf, his round eyes sunken in their sockets, his skin a gray pallor. “I don’t know what happened”, he said. “Two months ago I was on top of the world. There was nothing I couldn’t do. My wife says she can’t understand how I was able to function on three hours sleep and still have boundless energy. I never felt so good in my life. Now, it all seems beyond me. I feel stuck like I’m on a roller coaster, and I’ve become glued to the bottom of a high ride, a bottom I can’t seem to shake. I’d rather not be alive if it means living with this sense of hopelessness and futility. What’s wrong with me? I can’t stop crying.”

I hear this story in various degrees and shades of emotion all too often. My client is talking about mood changes that seem to have a life of their own. They stem from no particular losses or grievances, which might explain his sense of acute melancholia. What further complicates this picture is the alternation of moods, the ever irrepressible highs of boundless energy, the sharp drop into apathy. What is happening here?

There are several variations and explanations through which we can understand dramatic mood changes. Are we, for instance, talking about a swing in mood from our normal, everyday “OK”state into a depressive state? Or, is there also the presence of sharp spikes in energy characterized at its extreme by a grandiose, inflated sense of self? As well, there are degrees of intensity to take into account.

The sinking into despair is what is termed a clinical depression. It may occur in response to a crisis or significant life event, run its course over a matter of weeks or months, and in time recede into the past. Sometimes there may be no apparent stressor. What we have recently come to understand is that there may be a chemical imbalance triggered by some kind of stressful occurrence. Depression appears to run in families.

Of further concern is the fluctuating of mood between intense “highs”called manias along with a cycling into depression. This is termed manic depression or, bipolar disorder. In its extreme it can be highly debilitating and like depression, lethal. Mania can result in acute thought dysfunction, impairing a person’s ability to think logically. As well, one may become involved in highly questionable schemes, financial &/or personal, resulting in financial repercussions, promiscuity and brushes with the law.

There are milder versions of heightened mood fluctuations termed cyclothymia and hypomania. Cyclothymia is a fluctuation or cyclic alternation of mood, without the intensity of its more severe cousin, bipolar disorder. Hypomania is a heightened state of energy - filled expansiveness less severe then mania. It often feels enhancing with a sense of productiveness, while having less of a downside, at least on the surface. Mania and hypomania are quite seductive. They often involve such a sense of powerfulness and confidence, that one becomes caught in expansive well being, the abrupt deflation of which seems all the more cruel. Like other mood disorders, there appears to be a genetic link (it runs in families).

Our understanding of the causes and biochemical underpinnings of dramatic mood shifts has increased in the last 20 years. We know that once established, mood disorders are more likely to persist and grow worse. This is called “Kindling.” Studies show that the sooner a mood disorder is treated, the greater the chance for a complete recovery. Virtually,75% of those affected can be treated successfully, either with complete cessation of symptoms or a significant reduction.

What does one do when he finds himself in a dramatic mood change, or more commonly, when he sees a friend or family member in the throes of one? Mood disorders are often discounted by those afflicted. How do we come to know that what we are seeing is dysfunctional, and what do we do? Here are some thoughts on how you can help:

  • Recognize symptoms early on by noticing changes in sleep, appetite, grooming, belligerence and isolating behavior.
  • Maintain a supportive atmosphere. Avoid confrontation through speaking calmly in the face of agitation. Project an attitude of concern.
  • Fill in for the patient’s lack of emotional control by overcoming denial, yours and theirs. Often a family meeting is helpful. Be sure to point out strengths to help gain common ground.
  • Set boundaries and limits; it’s important to let a family member or friend know there is a structure, a support to make up for their lack of control. Reduce their sense of turmoil.
  • Join a support group. Being connected with others who share your concern helps normalize your situation. It also serves as a source of advice and knowledge, often from others who have trod the same road as you.
  • Seek treatment. Today there are medications and treatments that can dramatically change hopelessness into hopefulness. A combination of medication and psychotherapy has been found to be the most effective, successful combination in treating mood swings. Seeking treatment helps reduce isolation and a sense of stigma.
One final thought--thousands of people die from suicide every year. What is especially sad about this fact is that mood disorders are treatable. Don’t be a statistic. Be a survivor.


Andrew scott said...

Great point you make there. good POST.. I like your perspective on this subject.

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Donald Kern said...

Thank you for your kind thoughts

Donald Kern said...

Thank you for your kind thoughts

Nothing Changes said...

From 14 to 34 my daughter it appears is NOT treatable. I have found with most of the individuals in my NAMI meetings that they have the same situation. These individuals DO NOT get better and the medical community is not much help. Very difficult to get a diagonisis and even find a qualified individual to get treatment. Especially since almost NONE of the individuals have health insurance and can't keep themselves on medicaid because they are not capible of doing so and cant follow simple tasks or rules. Making it worse is that they are over the age of 18 and parents can no longer do anything legally including providing their own health insurance to cover these helpless individuals.

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