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Can Trauma Cause Bipolar? Unraveling the Complex Relationship

Bipolar disorder is categorized by episodes of depressive or manic symptoms.

  • During manic episodes, people might feel extremely optimistic or even irritable. They might behave impulsively, like gambling or reckless sex. It is also likely that they will be unable to concentrate and finish tasks.
  • During depressive episodes, people might feel sluggish or completely hopeless. During these episodes, individuals find it impossible to be happy or motivated.

There are multiple iterations of bipolar disorder, which can present with changes in severity or duration for these episodes. Currently, bipolar disorder is not a condition that can be treated or fixed but rather a condition that has to be managed with a combination of things like medication and therapy.

Moreover, there are several potential causes of bipolar disorder, one of which is bipolar caused by trauma. But can bipolar be caused by trauma, and what is the relationship between trauma and the development of bipolar disorder?

bipolar disorder

Bipolar Disorder Causes

The exact causes of bipolar disorder are not yet known, but research suggests that there is a combination of conditions that can increase the likelihood of developing bipolar disorder, including:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Stressful life events
  • Family or genetic links
  • Substance abuse
  • Brain chemistry

Bipolar disorders can manifest with different symptoms.

For example, bipolar I disorder usually comes with symptoms of manic episodes and major depressive episodes, whereas bipolar II might be limited to major depressive episodes but only one hypomanic episode. Those who have had both hypomanic and depressive episodes without other criteria for at least two years might be diagnosed with cyclothymic bipolar disorder.

Research on trauma and bipolar disorder

How could trauma potentially lead to bipolar disorder?

Several studies have reviewed the role of childhood trauma-induced bipolar disorder. In these circumstances, exposure to Childhood trauma increases the risk factor for developing bipolar disorder because childhood trauma can alter things like:

  • Affect regulation
  • Impulse control
  • Cognitive functioning

All three of these are necessary to cope with stress later in life. Childhood trauma impacts several genes along different biological pathways that can increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder or suicidal ideation. Neurobiological consequences of childhood trauma can cause things like:

  • Shortened telomeres
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Chronic inflammation

All three of these can have an equal impact on the risk of bipolar caused by trauma. Several experts believe that emotional distress experienced in childhood can have a significant impact on your ability to manage emotions in adulthood. Childhood trauma can include losing a parent, experiencing neglect, or any type of abuse.

However, research does not stop with childhood trauma. It extends to stressful life events, including experiencing trauma in adulthood. Research has found several links between the impact of severe stress in triggering mood episodes or making pre-existing conditions of bipolar disorder more challenging to manage.

Things that can cause this type of stress include:

  • Severe isolation,
  • Losing someone close to you,
  • Abuse,
  • Relationship problems,
  • Work pressure,
  • Trauma
stress and bipolar

The Kindling Hypothesis

So, can bipolar be caused by trauma? Yes, trauma can be one of several factors that increase your risk of developing trauma-induced bipolar disorder. All of this relates to the kindling hypothesis, which states that initial episodes of mood disorders like bipolar are influenced most heavily by psychosocial stresses.

This hypothesis states that initial episodes are more stressful and more impactful on your disorder than those later in life, which suggests that initial episodes of bipolar disorder are most likely triggered by significant stress, including trauma.

How trauma may influence brain structures

But how does trauma play a role in exacerbating neurobiological increases in mood disorders and episodes?

When you experience severe trauma, it changes the structure and function of your brain. Specific areas of the brain become hyperactive, and others deactivate. Things like the amygdala get bigger, and the amygdala is what stimulates your fight or flight responses, the mechanisms used for basic survival. This also increases cortisol and resting adrenaline. With abnormal resting levels of cortisol and adrenaline, individuals are more likely to experience problems with mood regulation.

Tangentially, the amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotions like fear and anxiety. It’s highly connected to your memory, so if you are unable to process trauma or stress, you are more likely to experience high levels of fear and anxiety and relive the memories associated with that fear and anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.

While areas like the amygdala get bigger, areas like the prefrontal cortex, which controls impulsivity, get smaller, which means the areas that would otherwise cause a balance are altered for the worst.

stress and bipolar

Importance of trauma-informed care in treating bipolar disorder

If you are experiencing symptoms of trauma-induced bipolar and worrying about whether your trauma directly led to symptoms of bipolar disorder, treatment needs to include trauma-informed care.

Trauma-informed care is essential to providing resolution for untreated trauma without re-traumatization. Re-traumatization can be any situation where the care you receive inadvertently triggers you or causes additional trauma.

Professionals who offer trauma-informed care in treating bipolar disorder avoid such circumstances by getting to know things that might trigger you, creating a space where you are directly involved in the approaches used for your treatment and what things you may or may not be comfortable with. Doing so can avoid creating unnecessary trauma when you are trying to get help.

From this place, you can then move on to treating and managing any remaining symptoms related to depressive or manic episodes.

Summing Up

Can trauma cause bipolar disorder? Yes, trauma, whether experienced in childhood or adulthood, can increase the likelihood of developing bipolar disorder. Bipolar caused by trauma can happen because of the kindling effect, but several stressors in childhood or adulthood could exacerbate the risk alongside other social or environmental factors.

There is a strong relationship between bipolar disorder and trauma, and if you are experiencing symptoms of either, it is important to receive a professional diagnosis and personalized treatment. This level of care requires trauma-informed therapy as part of your approach to managing bipolar disorder symptoms.

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