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What to Do When Anxiety Behaves Like a Mood Disorder

Learn what it's like when anxiety behaves like a mood disorder, specifically bipolar disorder. Read tips to manage anxiety when it acts like a mood disorder.

Anxiety disorders and mood disorders are two separate experiences. While both involve thoughts, feelings, and actions that are disruptive to life and disproportionate to circumstances, they have different symptoms (they do often occur together, though). Because these are different disorders, anxiety disorders and mood disorders often have different treatment approaches. What should you do, then, when your anxiety behaves like a mood disorder?

How Anxiety Behaves Like A Mood Disorder

The mood disorder that anxiety frequently tries to mimic is bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder causes people to experience extreme mood swings, from elevated to depressed to neutral in any order and at any frequency and intensity. It’s different for everyone who experiences it. Some people have occasional periods of highs or lows across many months. Others can cycle up and down many times in a single day. The swings of bipolar disorder are typically frustrating and exhausting. Likewise, anxiety can sway erratically and be equally frustrating and exhausting.

Imagine working hard and steadily to reduce anxiety—the worries, fears, panic, headaches, stomach aches, heart palpitations, sweating, racing thoughts, and more. You’ve managed all of this and feel confident and assured. You’re calm. You have patience with yourself and others. Your thoughts are positive, or at least neutral—they’re no longer negative and full of limiting beliefs. Your stress level is healthy, your worries are in check.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere (although quite likely there was a trigger lurking somewhere beneath your radar), you find yourself agitated, irritable, on edge, full of worries and what-ifs, and quite ill-at-ease. This is what it means for anxiety to behave like a mood disorder, specifically bipolar disorder. It disappears then returns, it settles down then spikes high.

If it would just remain steady, at a constant rate and intensity, it would be easier to deal with. But its swings of intensity make anxiety difficult to capture and calm. While doing so is indeed difficult, it’s not impossible.

What to Do When Anxiety Acts Like a Mood Disorder

You can quell the tsunami of anxiety and once again sail smoothly through your life. The trick is realizing that you have two different things you can address: the anxiety itself and the way it is behaving—in this case, erratic like bipolar disorder.

To restore balance, try these tips:

  • Notice what is happening when your anxiety isn’t there. What’s happening in your outer world? Inner world? What are your thoughts and emotions? What are you doing? How are you relating to others? Then, when you notice your anxiety on the upswing, use your insights to return to neutral.
  • Chart your anxiety. What are your anxious thoughts, emotions, and behaviors? Look for patterns. When are they strongest? Weakest? HealthyPlace has a mood journal you could use to chart your anxiety.
  • After discovering patterns to your anxiety, explore what makes it jump around between high and low. Add more of what reduces anxiety and minimize those things that rev it up.
  • Design an action plan to have ready when your anxiety starts to swing. Include little things you can do to decrease anxiety. Use your plan before anxiety bounces out of control, while it’s easier to manage.

The most effective things to do when anxiety acts like a mood disorder is to develop insight into what makes your anxiety swing up and down and to develop action plans to make use of your insight. Learning about our own unique anxiety and using the information to act will help your sea remain calm even when anxiety swings and swells.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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