Learning to Recognize the Triggers of My 'Bipolar Agitation'


I remember the first time I saw the look of terror in my husband’s eyes and I didn’t understand why. I was acting normally, wasn’t I? It was perfectly “normal” that I was upset over him eating all of the leftovers I wanted to eat for dinner, right? It’s OK that I sat at the kitchen counter waiting for him to get home so I could ask as soon as possible why he ate both of the burgers, even though I thought he knew one of them was for me — right? Didn’t he know all I could think about as I was driving home from a frustrating class was that burger? That I was literally obsessing over it? I was asking him this in a calm way, wasn’t I?

That was the first time my then-boyfriend, now husband, witnessed one of my hypomanic agitated outbursts. It is also the first one I can remember having in front of anyone. It was also not the last.

I wish I could say I’ve always been able to recognize the different symptoms of when I’m in a hypomanic or mixed bipolar cycle. I can always recognize the depressions. Those are easy. But the hypomanic or mixed symptoms, they are harder for me to personally recognize until after they happen.

For me, one of those symptoms is agitation. It tends to happen more when I’m in a mixed state and I’m moving from one cycle to the next (either from depression into hypomania or vice versa). I often don’t realize I’m agitated until after an outburst that’s similar to a child’s temper tantrum.

I remember one time a few years ago I woke up on the “wrong side of bed.” I was just in a frustrated, unhappy mood for no apparent reason, and everything was bothering me. I was home alone that day and was trying my hardest to concentrate on searching for a new job. Then a friend called. I answered the phone, because I thought it would be a five-minute conversation. But it turned into a 30-minute conversation about absolutely nothing. In my mind, it was pointless and a complete waste of my time.

When I got off the phone, I was extremely upset that I was interrupted. My whole body was tense and my legs were getting the weird restless feeling they get when I’m frustrated. I went to stand up, but the office chair I was sitting on wouldn’t budge on the carpet, which made me more agitated. Angrily, I pushed the chair back, stood up, and with superhuman strength, I threw the chair across the room. Not satisfied, I started throwing other things around the room until I eventually stopped when I saw the mess I created.

I was incredibly embarrassed and ashamed, not only of breaking one of the wheels on the chair, but also over having a huge tantrum over something that really wasn’t a big deal.

I feel I’m lucky my agitated outbursts don’t happen too often (maybe one or two times a year), but I don’t like that I have them and want them to stop completely. So lately I’ve been trying harder to recognize when they are happening in the hope I can be better at calming myself down.

In order for me to recognize the agitated symptom, I need to know what my triggers are. I have come to the realization that my agitation is triggered more when I’m interrupted while I’m focused on a task or doing something I’m enjoying, when things aren’t organized or clean and I’m obsessed over organizing or cleaning them, or when I’ve been obsessed over something and I don’t like the outcome.

A few months ago, I finally recognized the interruption trigger before it got too out of hand.

One Saturday morning, while I was in the middle of reading a great book, my husband interrupted me by repeating a story to me that he just heard on a podcast. Usually, we tell each other things we find interesting as soon as they happen, and it’s no big deal because we love learning what interests each other.

This time was different for me. Not only was I a little perturbed that I had to stop reading in order to listen to him, but I became full-on agitated when I felt like the story he was telling me dragged on (in reality, it probably lasted a minute). I unkindly interrupted him to ask him to stop telling the story or get to the point, and I became very grumpy and standoffish. I then tried to continue reading my book but couldn’t concentrate, which made me more frustrated and angry.

We had already planned to go for a walk that day, and my husband asked if I wanted to go right then, sensing I needed some sort of release. At first I said no, because I had too much to do around the house and going for a walk would take up too much of my time. Yet when I tried to start cleaning, it hit me. I wasn’t really angry with my husband; I was in an unnecessary agitated state and needed to calm myself down. Maybe we should go for that walk. So we did. And it helped me tremendously.

That day was a small milestone for me. I am proud of myself that I recognized the symptom of being agitated and figured out a solution to stop it before it became an emotional outburst.

All in all, I know I can’t stop triggers from happening. Life happens, and life isn’t perfect. But now that I’m learning to recognize when a trigger is happening and find reasonable solutions, I feel like I’m one step closer to getting off of my bipolar rollercoaster.

Image via Thinkstock.

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