passion flower, an anxiolytic as powerful as benzodiazapines

10 of the best natural supplements for anxiety and depression

AlbiziaAll over the world, nature has provided us with the medicines we need to make ourselves well, in the form of plants. 

So many plants contain molecules that not only relieve pain, but give us energy, clear our minds, calm us down, and help us adapt.

Big pharma derives most of its products from plants, but doesn’t want us to know that plants themselves can heal us.

In the global internet economy, plants are being rediscovered for their healing properties, and used to treat anxiety, depression, and stress.

So here are 10 supplements for anxiety and depression. Some have been used for thousands of years, and some are amino acids our body produces naturally, but all are plants (or found in plants).


Ashwagandha: when you need to de-stress

Ashwagandha is hard to categorize, because it’s good for almost everything. Also known as Withania somnifera or Indian Ginseng, the root of the ashwagandha plant has been ground and used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine to relieve stress, support the immune system, improve memory, stop premature aging, boost fertility, and reduce blood sugar. It’s been used to treat a wide range of conditions including epilepsy, depression, arthritis, and diabetes. One of the herbs compounds, Withaferin, has even been found to kill cancer cells. In another pre-clinical trial, it reversed Alzheimer’s pathology. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, and is also an anxiolytic and an adaptogen.

ashwagandha rootAshwagandha has recently gained popularity in the west as an adaptogen for its ability to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. It also improves energy levels, concentration, and memory.

In the past decade or so, several studies have put ashwagandha’s myriad health benefits to the test.


Relieving depression, anxiety, & stress

In one study, those who took ashwagandha (600mg/day) reported a 72% reduction in depression, anxiety, and stress levels after 60 days.

Many other studies have corroborated this data, with various dosages promoting strong reductions in anxiety, depression, and stress levels.


  • Ashwagandha relieves stress, anxiety, and ashwagandha is an adaptogen for stress insomnia
  • Ashwagandha is also an antidepressant, and increases serotonin and GABA levels
  • Ashwagandha improves energy levels and memory
  • It’s a known aphrodisiac, and improves male sperm count
  • Taking ashwagandha regularly reduces cortisol (stress) levels by around 30%
  • Ashwagandha protects the brain by fostering the growth of neurons, and repairing ones that have been damaged.
  • Ashwagandha can even neutralize neurotoxic elements such as those caused by Alzheimer’s


Reversing the effects of chronic stress

Acute stress can help us to survive – whether it’s escaping a tiger or meeting a deadline. Chronic stress, however, can lead to cardiovascular disease, anxiety disorders and panic attacks, fatigue, autoimmune disorders, and more. In the brain, it leads to excess glutamate and activation of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors, which in turn causes neural atrophy and cell death. This can lead to problems with memory loss and cognition, as well as to neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Ashwaganda has neuroprotective properties and has been used to prevent neurogenerative diseases. It protects against and may even reverse the neural atrophy and death that occurs in people suffering from Alzheimer’s, AIDS, Parkinson’s, and other diseases by restoring mitochondrial activity and reducing inflammation.

Ashwagandha helps brain cells grow. It can increase synaptic density and even spur the regeneration of axons . It may even be able to induce the regeneration of axons in the spinal cord after spinal cord injury.

Chronic stress also impairs our immune system, but ashwagandha can help restore it. A compound of ashwagandha, Withanolide A, increased the T cell population in mice after they had been depleted by chronic stress.


Treating alcohol withdrawal

Another study found ashwagandha to be effective in reducing anxiety related to alcohol withdrawal, and led to voluntary reductions of alcohol intake in alcoholic mice. The same study found that administration of ashwagandha increased GABA and serotonin levels in the brain.



Magnesium may cure anxiety & depression


“Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease” – Hippocrates

Our bodies need magnesium for just about everything.

magnesium for depression, anxiety, and stress

Magnesium supports our cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and digestive system. It prevents the hyperexcitability of neurons that results in anxiety, stress, and depression. It may help prevent neurological diseases such as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, and stroke. Magnesium also reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the frequency of migraines.

You probably aren’t getting enough of this essential mineral. Researchers estimate that about 60% of American adults are magnesium deficient, because magnesium is stripped out of most of our water and processed food.


Magnesium deficiency is extremely common

Chances are, you’re magnesium deficient, and if you’re depressed or anxious, this could be why.

Magnesium deficiency can cause anxiety, depression, weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, diabetes and more.

Thankfully, magnesium supplementation can reverse these conditions as well. Several studies have established magnesium’s efficacy in treating depression and anxiety. In one recent study, daily use of magnesium  significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, seeing results in just two weeks.


Magnesium & brain health

Magnesium improves synaptic function, learning, and memory. Magnesium regulates glutamate transmittion, preventing neural atrophy that can be caused by chronic stress and the overactivation of NMDA receptors. It also helps neurons and neural networks grow.


  • Magnesium is a strong anxyiolytic and anti-depressant
  • It reduces stress and anxiety by regulating glutamate, increasing the availability of GABA, and moderating stress hormones
  • It’s an anti-inflammatory, protecting against oxidative stress which can lead to cardiovascular disease and cancer
  • Magnesium improves brain function by increasing levels of proteins neurons need to grow
  • It protects against neurogdegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s
  • Magnesium can help to reverse the lighter sleep patterns associated with hormonal changes during aging


Of course, mental health is complex; biological mechanisms interact with social,  environmental, and historical factors. However nourishing your mind and body by getting enough magnesium is an excellent place to start to feel better. 

Read more about magnesium and how it works

GABA supplements for anxiety


A GABA molecule


GABA is both a neurotransmitter and an amino acid. Much of our bodies’ natural GABA is produced by microbiota in our gut, the “second”, emotional brain. Our brains listen to our guts and vice-versa. They communicate with lightning speed through the vagus nerve and what’s called the “gut-brain-axis”.  GABA can be also be taken as a supplement.

Benefits of GABA

GABA relieves anxiety, improves mood, and leads to better sleep. GABA plays an important role in our ability to respond to anxiety and stress. As an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA literally stops your neurons from firing – directly preventing overactivity in the brain.

Several studies have found that people with major depression and anxiety have lower GABA levels. Reduced GABA levels have also been found in children with ADHDand individuals with autism.


  • Low GABA levels are linked to anxiety, depression, ADHD, & autism
  • GABA supplements have been found to lower stress & cortisol levels
  • GABA prevents too much excitatory activity in the brain by inhibiting neural activity
  • GABA reduces fatigue & bolsters the immune system
  • GABA may improve memory & attention


How does GABA work?

As a neurotransmitter, GABA plays an inhibitory role in the central nervous system. Most CNS depressants, like alcohol or benzodiazapines, work by binding to GABA receptors in the brain, mimicking the effects of GABA. However GABA itself is quite natural, and as a supplement is not harmful or addictive.

So how does GABA work in what are assumed to be complex disorders like depression, anxiety, and ADHD?

GABA’s inhibitory function kind of shuts down those neural pathways, or, thoughts, that are making you anxious. It stops the overthinking or repetitive thoughts that often accompany major depression and anxiety. Similarly, it may prevent the excessive brain activity that leads to impulsivity or distractibility in ADHD.

Though lots of medical research has focused on the role of GABA in the brain, limited research has been done into its effectiveness as a supplement.

Nevertheless, a few studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of GABA supplements in alleviating stress in challenging situations, promoting relaxation and bolstering the immune system. GABA has also been found to reduce cortisol levels and fatigue.

In rats, GABA has been shown to stimulate protein synthesis, improve memory and attention, and lower blood pressure.

Despite evidence that they work, the medical community has been skeptical of GABA supplements, because the neurotransmitter was not previously thought to cross the blood brain barrier.

This has led to speculation that GABA supplements may work via the enteric nervous system, by increasing the neurotransmitter’s availability in the gut. However recent research shows that GABA works in the gut, too. One study found that higher levels of GABA in the gut was correlated wtih lower depression.


Getting GABA to the brain

GABA’s bioavailability in the brain was found to be dramatically enhanced when consumed along with l-arginine, an amino acid commonly found in protein rich foods, such as meat.

GABA can be found in many vegetables such as broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes. Fermented foods including tea are also rich sources of GABA.

The medication pregabalin is a GABA analogue and thought to increase GABA in the brain. It is sold under the brand name Lyrica, and a generic version was made available in the US in 2019. Pregabalin is used to treat generalized anxiety disorder, seizures, and pain, as well as alcohol withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal.

Other GABA analogues (meaning molecules that bind to GABA receptors and inhibit neural activity like GABA) include the Soviet space drug Phenibut, the habit forming benzodiazapines (the Pams), and nature’s own Passionflower (see below).


How should I take GABA?

Existing research suggests that GABA is more effective at higher doses of up to 800mg, but may have some effect at doses as low as 30mg.

To enhance the effects of GABA, take it with l-arginine, or with l-arginine rich foods. GABA’s effects may also be enhanced when consumed with tea or l-theanine.



Passionflower incarnata anxiety

Passifora incarnata


There are over 550 species of flowers in the genus Passiflora. Some are vines or shrubs, but they all can be distinguished by their purple and blue shades, which reflect their tranquilizing effects. They seem as though they’re about to lull you to sleep.

Passiflora species grow throughout the Americas, Oceania and Asia. Many species bear small, elongated fruits, which are cultivated and enjoyed in South America and Southeast Asia.

The most commonly cultivated passionflower is Passiflora incarnata, which has been used for thousands of years to treat anxiety and insomnia. It was part of Hippocrates’ pharmacocopeia in Ancient Greece, where he used it to treat epilepsy.

Passiflora incarnata has been traditionally used as a sedative, though it has other, less common uses. For example in Brazil it’s also widely used as an anti-asthmatic and analgesic.


Calming the mind

Across species, Passiflora is known for its ability to calm anxiety and induce sleep. Passiflora is a natural benzodiazapine. It contains GABA as well as other flavonoids that bind to GABA receptors in the brain.

Passiflora incarnata and Passiflora caerulea both contain chrysin, a natural flavonoid that acts like valium, and apegenin, another flavonoid. These compounds bind to the same place as benzodiazepines do on GABAA receptors, creating an anxiolytic effect. Passiflora species have been found to relieve anxiety as effectively as benzodiazapines without inducing the same level of sedation, cognitive impairment, or muscle relaxation. This makes passionflower a promising alternative to benzodiazapines or SSRIs for anxiety disorders, and should be safe to use on a regular basis without interfering with work or other responsibilities.


  • Passionflower has an anxiolytic effect similar to benzodiazapines like valium by binding to GABA receptors in the brain
  • Passiflora significantly decreased symptoms of anxiety in alcohol withdrawal
  • Passiflora not only improves sleep, but reduces the harm caused to the brain by sleep deprivation
  • Passionflower may be effective in reducing symptoms of opiod or alcohol withdrawal
  • Passionflower increases synaptic plasticity and acts as an anti-depressant by stimulating the protein BDNF


Protecting the brain

A recent study suggests that Passiflora incarnata and one of its compounds, vitexin, counteracts the neurodegenerative effects of insomnia or poor sleep.

More than that, Passiflora incarnata stimulates adult neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells . It also upregulates BDNF, a protein that fosters the growth of brain cells and synaptic plasticity. As such it also works as an antidepressant and enhances memory.


Other uses of Passion flower

While primarily thought of as an anxiolytic, Passiflora incarnata has also shown promise for treating depression, neuropathic pain, convulsions, asthma, ADHD, palpitations, cardiac rhythm abnormalities, hypertension, and sexual dysfunction. And at least one study demonstrated a strong reduction in menopausal symptoms after treatment with Passiflora Incarnata.

Most species have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-viral, anti-carcinogenic, and antioxidant properties. Some species of Passiflora have been used to treat diabetes and even cancer.

Hippocrates used Passiflora incarnata to treat epilepsly. Similarly, native to Argentina, Passiflora tenuifila, known as Garlic passion fruit, is used an anti-convulsant, protecting against seizures.

In India, it’s being used to treat opium addiction. In one study, Passiflora was added to clonidine to treat subjects in opium withdrawal. The results were positive, with the group that took the passionflower was better able to manage their symptoms. It may also be effective in lessening withdrawal symptoms for those coming off of benzodiazapines. 


Passiflora Prairihuasca

On the North American plains, passionflower is sometimes mixed with the Illinois Bundleflower – the bark of which contains DMT – to produce prairiehuasca, a Midwestern version of ayahuasca. Passionflower is a source of beta-Carbolines, an MAO inhibitor that prevents the rapid breakdown of DMT in the body. The plants are boiled and combined for a synergistic effect and to permit a long, spiritual journey.


How much is safe to take?

Studies investigating the therapeutic properties of passionflower have safely used doses of up to 800mg/day for up to two months, with no adverse effects. For mild anxiety, a lesser dose of around 200mg/day will probably be sufficient. However for more severe cases, individuals may want to experiment with higher doses of 500mg/day or more. Avoid taking passionflower while pregnant. In animal trials, there were instances where it’s possible that Passiflora induced premature birth.




turmeric as an antidepressant

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is an anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-depressant… and it’ll turn your hands and clothes all yellow. And who doesn’t want that?

Some of the coolest people in history were yellow, like Lisa Simpson. And like Lisa Simpson, curcumin will make you smarter.

Our bitter yellow friend also stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that grows your brain cells. BDNF helps your neurons mature and increases synaptic strength and neuroplasticity, which is great not only for your mind, but also your mood.

Curcumin helps our bodies synthesize DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish. DHA deficiency is linked to anxiety, depression, impairments in learning and memory, and other cognitive problems including Alzheimer’s disease. By elevating DHA levels in the brain, curcumin reduces anxiety. However alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another omega-3 fatty acid, must also be present for it to work.


Curcumin as an antidepressant

Curcumin has antidepressant properties, increasing serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. 

Aside from increasing BDNF (a powerful antidepressant itself), curcumin increases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain.

Inflammation may be a major contributor to depression. Certain symptoms, including difficulty sleeping, low energy levels, and weight changes have inflammatory markers. Did I mention curcumin is an anti inflammatory?

Chronic stress can also cause depression. Too much stress not only wears us out physically, but too much worrying is literally toxic, and can shrink and kill off our brain cells. This can lead to entire regions of the brain atrophying, notably the pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus. Soon we’re having trouble with learning and memory, our brain isn’t producing new neurons, et voila, we have depression.

Studies have shown that curcumin reduces cell death in rats with stress-induced depression. Rats with cognitive impairments due to chronic stress recovered their learning and memory capacities after being treated with curcumin.

Curcumin also restored serotonin levels in rats with PTSD. The curcumin also promoted fear extinction in the rats – or, the rats stopped responding to a stimulus they had previously associated with pain.

Turmeric is effective in this model of depression as well, by promoting neurogenesis, reducing cortisol, and restoring serotonin and BDNF levels.


Tryptophan & 5-HTP

A precursor to serotonin, tryptophan is one of the best supplements for anxiety and depression. Your body needs enough of it to create those feel good neurotransmitters and get them circulating throughout your brain, causing pleasant thoughts.

Tryptophan was commonly used as a supplement to antidepressants in the 1970s and 80s, until it was termporarily banned by the FDA after a bad batch of it got some people sick. So a variant of tryptophan, 5-HTP, began to be marketed in the US.

Both are now used as supplements for anxiety and depression. Tryptophan and 5-HTP are also used to treat insomnia, as the synthesis of serotonin is important for sleep, as well as cognition and memory.

Clinical studies have found both tryptophan and 5-HTP to be effective in increasing serotonin and improving mood.

Increased tryptophan in the brain, or “tryptophan loading”, leads to higher levels of serotonin. One way tryptophan (or, serotonin) works is by decreasing connectivity in the default mode network – the area of the brain involved in processes such as self-reflection and introspection, but also rumination and anxious overthinking.

Your body literally cannot make serotonin without these building blocks. So while it may not be the end-all-be-all cure, it’s an important ingredient!

Combined with a healthy diet, some exercise, sunshine and self-care, your body will synthesize these supplements into serotonin and get it circulating around your brain in no time.

WARNING: Mixing tryptophan or 5-HTP with other drugs that affect serotonin, like SSRIs or serotonergic psychedelics like psilocybin or LSD can cause a potentially fatal considtion called serotonin syndrome, especially at high doses. In severe cases, serotonin syndrome can cause fever, seizures, and even death. If you’re taking any other medications, be sure to consult your doctor before taking supplements like tryptophan or 5-HTP.



CBD for anxiety

CBD, or cannabidiol, is the non-psychoactive element of cannabis. It has many therapeutic benefits, and promotes a sense of calm by supplementing the body’s natural endocannabinoids.


The benefits of CBD

The sale of CBD, usually as an oil or tincture, has grown in popularity along with the use of medical marijuana. It’s now used  to relieve stress, anxiety, cognitve disorders, insomnia, and even schizophrenia. It can relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and is also being investigated as a possible treatment for addiction, PTSD, social anxiety,  and Alzheimer’s disease.


How CBD works

Along with our bodies’ natural endocannabinoids, CBD helps our bodies adapt to chronic stress by regulating the secretion of stress hormones. Studies have linked CBD to lower levels of cortisol, the famous stress hormone. Continuously high levels of cortisol due to chronic stress is toxic, leading to inflammation that is thought to play a role in causing diseases ranging from high blood pressure to cancer. Chronic stress and exposure to increased cortisol also leads to depression.


CBD for anxiety

The medical community has only recently begun to seriously research the CBD as a treatment for anxiety. However initial studies are quite promising. In one study, 67% of participants with anxiety disorders or insomnia responded to CBD within the first month. Most were on a regimen of only 25mg per day for anxiety – much less than the 300mg or 600mg used in studies with social anxiety disorder.  A review of eight different studies also found that CBD consistently reduced anxiety in people with anxiety related disorders.



CBD and the endocannabinoid system appear to play a role in memory, and it is through this mechanism that CBD is thought to be effective in treating PTSD. Few studies have been carried out for PTSD specifically, but in one small study 91% of patients with PTSD experienced a reduction of symptoms, with an average daily dose of just 33mg of CBD. In addition to relieving chronic stress and anxiety associated with PTSD, it is thought to act by helping the brain to forget or preventing the reconsolidation of memories related to fear.


CBD for addiction

By relieving anxiety and supporting emotional regulation, CBD is also thought to help reduce cravings and support people going through alcohol and even heroin withdrawal.


CBD oil for anxiety


Further research

Hundreds of studies are underway to investigate more of the benefits of CBD.

CBD is being investigated for its role as an anti-inflammatory, preventing neurogenerative and cardiovascular diseases, as well as an antioxidant, preventing cancer and killing cancer cells.

Preliminary studies have shown CBD effective as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, as it reduces neuroinflammation and stimulates new cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.




Albizzia flower
A flower from an Albizia tree

The Albizia tree is native to East Asia and has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine. The flower and bark have been used for thousands of years to treat insomnia, depression, anxiety, improve memory, and promote a general sense of peace and well-being.

It’s so well known for its joyful effects that the Chinese name for the flower, “he huan hua”, literally means “collective happiness flower”.

Traditional Chinese medicine says that Albizia works by calming the spirit and removing emotional extremes, letting happiness enter the heart.

While the herb is only just beginning to be explored in Western medicine. In one study, depression was rapidly reversed in mice after being given a high dose of Albizia.

Albizia can be found online, as well as at many Chinese food and specialty stores. Albizia is usually taken in water as a tonic. It can also be made into a paste and applied to the skin. Topical application and absorption is recommended for treating anxiety.


Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea grows in far northern climates in places such as Siberia, Greenland, and Scandinavia. It’s well known in Russia and was even used by the Soviet military .

In preclinical trials, rhodiola restored serotonin levels after they had been depleted by chronic stress. In a clinical trial, rhodiola alleviated depression, emotional instability, and insomnia within six weeks (at a dosage of 340-680mg/day).

Like ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea is an adaptogen.

Adaptogens regulate our bodies’ neurotransmitters and neuroendocrine systems, allowing us to adapt to stressful situations.

They promote neurogenesis and proteins such as BDNF that help neurons to grow, protecting against cognitive decline while improving mood and memory. As anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, they protect against oxidative stress, an inflammatory state that leads to the development of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Rhodiola increases levels of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA in the brain. It also regulates stress hormones. When we’re stressed, rhodiola helps moderate the hyperactivation of the adrenal glands (HPA axis), and lowers cortisol levels.

Rhodiola is also particularly good at rescuing our performance when we’re tired. It improves our cognitive skills and our physical endurance, while reducing fatigue, distractibility, and irritability.




“Peace, happiness and joy is possible during the time I drink my tea.”

    – Thich Nhat Hanh


L-theanine works by supporting the release of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine in the brain. It calms and awakens us.

L-theanine is an anti-depressant. Every three cups of tea consumed per day is associated with a 37% reduced risk of depression. It may be especially effective in cases of depression due to chronic stress.

It’s been found to improve sleep quality. Combined with GABA, it also reduces the time it takes to fall asleep.

In clinical studies, l-theanine has improved verbal fluency, memory, and attention span.
It has neuroprotective properties and may improve cognition following brain injury. It may also be useful in treating ADHD, anxiety disorders, OCD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

Theanine also boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and works to suppress cancer cells.



living with bipolar disorder



What’s it like living with bipolar disorder? Learning to ride the bipolar roller coaster 

by Tina Phillips, MSW

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric condition which causes intense mood swings, often between depression, or low mood, and mania, high mood. Most of us are familiar with depression, but may not be as familiar with mania.

Mania can cause different kinds of behavior including grandiosity or inflated self-esteem, pressured speech or talking fast, racing thoughts or flights of ideas, impulsivity or taking risks that put one in danger, and decreased need for sleep, among some other symptoms.

Some people with bipolar disorder experience paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions, among other psychotic symptoms. Not every person will experience all of these symptoms, but to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder a person must experience at least three of the diagnostic criteria. There are varying symptoms and it can be hard to recognize if one is not aware of how it manifests. It is important to be aware of what bipolar disorder looks like so one can seek diagnosis and treatment or help a loved one in need.

There are several subtypes of bipolar disorder and some consider bipolar disorder to be a spectrum disorder. Bipolar disorder is largely considered a serious psychiatric disorder and around 2.8 percent of the population has it. Bipolar disorder is considered one of the more stigmatized forms of mental illness, making it particularly hard for those who have it to recognize, acknowledge, seek treatment for it, and stick with treatment the rest of their lives in order to manage it. 


Types of bipolar disorder


Bipolar I

Bipolar I disorder is a mental illness comprising episodes of mania. Many have both episodes of mania and depression. To receive a Bipolar I diagnosis a person must have a mania last at least a week or be so profound that it requires hospitalization.


Bipolar II

Bipolar II disorder is a type of bipolar disorder where a person experiences depression with episodes of hypomania, which is not a full blown version of mania, but shares some features.


Cyclothymic disorder or cyclothymia

Cyclothymic disorder or cyclothymia encompasses a period of unstable mood in which a person experiences both hypomania and mild depression. This must last for at least two years to meet the criteria and sometimes one can experience leveling off periods of normal mood, but this usually lasts less than eight weeks.


Bipolar disorder, “other specified” and “unspecified”

Bipolar disorder, “other specified” or “unspecified” is when a person doesn’t meet the criteria for bipolar I, II, or cyclothymia, but does experience periods of abnormally elevated mood.


What causes bipolar disorder?

Scientists are still studying the cause of bipolar disorder, and it appears there are several complex factors at play. These include genetics, brain structure and chemical makeup, and stress/triggers. While each of these plays a part, there isn’t one reason scientists can pinpoint or say every person with bipolar disorder developed it because of something specific. Bipolar disorder is known to run in families, but there is no one gene responsible, and there is no direct connection between one family member to the next. There is some evidence that disruptions in a protein called Akt can lead to brain changes that can contribute to developing bipolar disorder. Also stressful events in our lives can sometimes be a trigger for an underlying condition to express itself. It is most common to see bipolar disorder develop in one’s late teens or early 20s. However, some people don’t get diagnosed until later years, and unfortunately many experience misdiagnosis, leading to many years of suffering without proper treatment.


What’s it like living with bipolar disorder?

I can speak from my own experience of living with bipolar disorder. Diagnosed at age 14, I have lived with bipolar disorder for a little over 25 years, more than half my life. I have Bipolar I, which means I have the most severe type of bipolar disorder. For me this includes manic episodes with psychotic features, such as hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and complete black outs, in addition to most of the symptoms from the basic diagnostic criteria list.

It always starts out as feeling good, and ends with feeling bad. I develop a lot of energy and creative ideas, I come up with grand projects, I start to believe I have special powers, I start talking fast, I have a decreased need for food and sleep, I talk to complete strangers and become flirty, my inhibitions go away, but then my behavior becomes stranger as time goes on. I end up becoming so irritating to those around me, and I cannot believe it when they say there is something wrong with me. To me I am more than fine, I am great. It adds to my stress when others don’t believe what I am saying. My paranoia picks up and then the darkness takes over. 

In the early part of my life I had been on and off several different medications trying to find the right medication for me, working with different psychiatrists. I experienced three major manic episodes, and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward twice. I stabilized on Carbamazepine in my early 20s and have been on it ever since. However I suffer from traumatic memories of those manic episodes even now. I also recently had an aggravation of my symptoms due to life stressors and had to add medication to treat bipolar depression. 

Although I am medicated I also experience some depression and a lot of anxiety, which I only recently learned is often a large part of bipolar disorder. Even after this long I am still discovering things about the disorder and how it manifests for me. It’s very complex, not every person experiences the exact same symptoms, and it can also shift throughout time. I am starting to look at my emotional patterns and seeing how my mood swings despite being on medication, which is frustrating, but part of the reality with living with bipolar disorder. 

I am still learning about what my triggers are, how to manage my bipolar disorder, and what about me is because of my bipolar disorder. Some of the things other people dislike about me are because of my bipolar disorder, and they aren’t things that can be medicated away. Things like my sensitivity, intense emotions such as anger, how fast and dramatically my mood can change, my anxiety, my loudness, my sleep schedule/being a night owl, my bluntness, and my bossiness. I have to remind myself that I don’t have control over what others think of me, and I need to learn to love myself, even the challenging parts of me.

Many people with bipolar disorder experience isolation and many lose family, friends, jobs, and romantic partners in part due to their bipolar disorder. This can make people feel ashamed for having it and it can lead to further depression. Despite the challenges and heart breaks bipolar disorder can bring to our lives, it’s not something we should be ashamed of. There is nothing we did to deserve having it, and there’s only so much we can do about it. It takes a lot of work to manage our moods and all the parts of life impacted by our disorder.

Sometimes bipolar disorder is like riding a roller coaster we cannot get off, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do to improve the quality of our lives, learn to cope, and find treatments that work for us. There are many other experiences of bipolar disorder, and no two stories are exactly alike. 


Bipolar emotions: Intense and sensitive 

Many people with bipolar disorder are accused of being overly “intense” or “sensitive.” In fact, these are common traits and there’s not much one can do about this, as this is the person they are. Medications can stabilize moods to some degree, but some traits cannot be medicated away. People need to try to adjust to their loved ones, friends, or co-workers who display sensitivity and emotionality. When people in a persons’ life don’t try to accept their differences, it can leave a person with bipolar disorder feeling isolated, depressed, anxious, and misunderstood. Often stresses in life and mistreatment can lead to trauma and other disorders.

There are several common co-occurring disorders with bipolar disorder. These include ADHD, OCD, substance abuse disorders, anxiety, and eating disorders. Some of these may come along the same genetic line as bipolar disorder, but also could be triggered by stress in a person’s life. Some people use substances to self-medicate, and eating disorders are often a way for people gain control when they feel their lives are out of their control. In addition, suicide attempts and completed suicides are more common in people with bipolar disorder. In fact, “up to 20% of (mostly untreated) bipolar disorder subjects end their life by suicide, and 20–60% of them attempt suicide at least one in their lifetime.” Given such alarming rates, it’s vitally important we take a look at what can prevent people with bipolar disorder from attempting to take their own lives. Important factors in reducing suicide attempts include early diagnosis, effective treatment, and clinical interventions. 


Treatment for bipolar disorder




One of the main treatments for bipolar disorder is psychiatric medication. Medication can be very effective in helping to manage symptoms. There are a range of medications that treat mood disorders, mania, psychotic symptoms, anxiety, and depression. Many people with bipolar disorder see a psychiatrist regularly to help manage medications and make adjustments as needed. Some people require multiple medications to effectively manage their symptoms.

Many people with bipolar disorder struggle to take their medications or do not stay on their medications. Reasons behind this vary. Many experience side effects that become intolerable or they don’t like how the medication dulls their personality. Some people like the way mania makes them feel and are used to living life with mania, and go off of their medication to gain back what they feel like they lost. Some people start to feel better on their medications, and think they no longer need their medication. However, it’s often the medication that is making them feel better and once off the medication they can backslide.

Some people feel the pressure of the stigma of being dependent on medications, or worry about what other people think of them and cave to pressure of wanting to appear “normal.” This is ironic because medication actually stabilizes mood and can help people manage their condition, making them more functional. Some people worry being on medication for life will affect their long-term physical health or even shorten their lifespan.

It’s important not to judge people for their decision not to take medications because we don’t walk in their shoes. Respecting the self-determination of people with mental illness is key. We should work towards research that will develop new therapies that have less side effects. People with bipolar disorder should work closely with their healthcare team to address any concerns and adjust medications as needed. 



Psychotherapy can also help people manage moods, learn their triggers, develop and practice coping skills, and find creative ways to regulate their mood. Several types of therapy have been shown effective in treating bipolar disorder including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Family Focused Therapy, Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy, and Group Psychoeducation. Group therapy also helps some people as they can talk with peers experiencing similar struggles, feel validation, and share social support.

Learning coping skills and having a wellness action recovery plan can really help people navigate the bipolar journey. Different techniques work for different people and so it’s important to be open to trying various tools and strategies to find which ones fit best for you. Some people also use apps to manage their symptoms or keep track of their moods. 


Finding balance: ways to manage bipolar disorder

There are many ways to manage bipolar disorder outside of traditional methods. These include exercise and other coping mechanisms such as art, journaling, and mindfulness/meditation, among other activities. Other important factors are proper nutrition, getting enough sleep, keeping a schedule/routine, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. Disruptions in these key factors can lead to mood destabilization or lead to medications being less effective. 

Furthermore, managing stress and triggers, relaxation and rest, and having social support are very important in managing bipolar disorder. Having places to go and community that is inclusive decreases stigma, gives people hope, and builds skills that help people recover. One such place is a clubhouse for those with mental illness. Putting together the right plan for each individual to successfully manage bipolar disorder may take some trial and error, but it’s worth the journey of exploration. It takes a lot of adjustment and readjustment throughout the lifespan to learn to ride the waves of bipolar disorder. It is not an easy life, but it is a life that can be worth living. Seeking help to manage the mood swings and creating a good quality of life through various coping skills and strategies is how we thrive through the ups and downs of life. 


Further resources and recommended reading


volunteer at an animal shelter


10 fun things to do if you’re depressed

By Cane Kelly


The past year has driven most of us to live like angry tigers pacing tiny cages. Isolation isn’t natural and has serious side effects, but one can also cultivate a healthy solitude. Knowing yourself isn’t an easy process and it’s easy to get intimidated by the outside world and its standards and materialistic focus.

This article is for anyone. Even if you have a partner, invest in yourself. Trying new things alone is key to keeping your independence and understanding emotions as they pop up in your life. We learn through new experiences, and this helps to keep our brain young and happy. Living with purpose and open-mindedness makes life a lot more interesting than following someone else’s lead. 

If your’re depressed, try dating yourself. Dating yourself is fun. There’s no compromising – you get to choose what you do. It’s healthy for people in relationships too. Being in the constant company of your partner can be overwhelming and creates a dependence that’s bad for your mental health. 

Before I got married, I spent a lot of time by myself. I made continual efforts to entertain myself and explore who I am. I still date myself. Covid-19 changed my normal patterns. I try to visit a new place alone a few times a year. I haven’t been anywhere this year, and I’ve got a bad case of cabin fever.


traveling alone


While I’m eager to explore places like Romania and Greece, we have to be careful because the crisis isn’t over yet. A few of these suggestions require a little investment but rediscovering and reconnecting with yourself is worth every cent.


Go to the movies alone

This seems like a no–brainer. People watch television by themselves all the time but taking a weekday trip to the movies is fun. Most people don’t show up for the first showing of any film. Some theaters won’t care if you slip into a second movie if you buy concessions. I’ve spent entire days lost watching movies. 

go to the movies alone


Learn how to bake

I have mixed feelings about baking because it is technical. The quality of your tools, like measuring cups, scales, and other items will determine how well your efforts turn out. I’ve made some real stinkers because I wasn’t precise with the measurements.

A few years ago, I tried to make Red Velvet Cup Cakes, but I was sloppy with the chemistry and they turned out as dense as baseballs. My poor husband ate one with a smile on his face. That’s true love.

learn to bake


Meet a new city alone

I must admit traveling alone is my favorite thing in the whole world. You may want to wait a little while as the pandemic finally comes to an end but exploring a new place – even the next town closest to you might have something unexpected to find. The United States is an enormous place with people as different as Europe. It takes an estimated 40 hours of driving to get from one coast to the other. The drive is scenic particularly if you skip the big highways and take the smaller roads. Don’t freak out if you get lost. That is part of the adventure.

visit a city on your own


Check out your local cemetary

I’m from Lexington, Kentucky and our city cemetery is the most beautiful part of the entire city. There are mean ducks that might try to run you off if you get too close to the water or forget to bring grapes or other types of fruit. Bread is bad for ducks and other wildlife. I love cemeteries and I make visiting these monuments to past generations a priority when I visit a new city.



There are endless opportunities to help others. The United States has a serious issue with homeless cats and dogs. Thousands are put to sleep every week because they aren’t enough homes for them all. Digging in and helping an animal rescue will make you feel good about yourself and you will be helping creatures that could die without you.

If helping animals isn’t your thing, then volunteer at a homeless shelter or any number of organizations that desperately need your help. From spending quality time with kids to digging in and helping feed those who sleep on the streets, there are endless opportunities to help out and you get a big dose of serotonin for your efforts.


Take yourself out to dinner

You might have to sit at the bar if the restaurant is full, but most bartenders are excellent listeners and offer advice and understanding. Alternatively, bringing a novel to dig your teeth into as you try a flight of beer or wines is a great way to spend an evening. You end up making new friends or at the very least hear some juicy details about someone else and their experience. You might feel a little uncomfortable at first but try to embrace the discomfort and watch and adventure unfold as you try something new.


Go to an aquarium

You must check out the ratings for any animal attraction. Don’t spend your hard-earned money on places that mistreat any creature. Ethical animal attractions might cost more than their less reputable counterparts, but do you want to see dolphins in tiny takes living like prisoners? No. Do your research before visiting any animal attraction.


Learn to grow veggies from table scraps

As the climate crisis rages forward it is crucial to embrace a circular economy. Green onions, potatoes, leeks, and herbs are foods you can grow on a window ledge. All you need to do for potatoes has cut them in half after they have grown a few eyes. Cut them in half and deposit them in deep soil. You will have potatoes by winter!

This is easy and quick to do, but if you have more time on your hands, you can start a larger veggie garden. Gardening reduces stress and negative emotions, it gives you a sense of responsibility and you get to nurture something and see it grow and thrive.

gardening with table scraps


Treat yourself to a spa day (or organize one at home)

A spa day is a luxury and if you do a little internet digging you might be able to grab a deal that makes the treatment more affordable. Or you could plan a spa day at home. A bath bomb, essential oil, bath salts, and a few candles and a pumice stone can change your bathroom from an ordinary experience into something truly relaxing, and you can add a face mask or even mix brown sugar and coconut oil for a more natural approach to getting a glow to your skin.

Take your time and pay attention to your feet. A proper foot rub is an easy way to improve your health and help you sleep. Magnesium flakes also can offer an extra element making bedtime a breeze. Magnesium is best absorbed through the skin which means if you have a deficiency, this is a great way to resolve the issue.

Get naked, paint your toenails, do yoga. Go crazy taking care of yourself. A full day dedicated to relaxation is a great way to get in touch with yourself and renew your mind and body.



Go to a show or a musical performance

Did you know you are more likely to make new friends and acquaintances when you’re all by yourself? Don’t be afraid to push to the front of the crowd and dance your pants off. This is another exhilarating situation, particularly if you are passionate about the music or play you are watching!

take yourself out


Bonus tip! Take a long walk!

Self reflection should shadow selfies. Understanding yourself and your emotions can be a complex issue to tackle and take hours or days to process. Being human is hard! Taking time to  breathe and think. If people made it common practice to be careful with their words and intentions even when speaking to themselves is becoming a focus throughout many health and wellness experts. 

Compassion for others is important, but compassion for yourself is more crucial than anything you can do for others because if you’re bullying yourself, then you need to readjust and pull that focus of care on you’re on well-being.

take a walk