Stress Can Trigger Bipolar Disorder

Conceptual brain image; psychiatric disorders. (Image credit: Dreamstime.)

Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones checked herself into a mental health facility earlier this month for treatment for bipolar II disorder, according to news reports. Zeta-Jones' publicist told NBC's “Today Show” that Jones' decision to check into the hospital is due, at least in part,to stress from her husband Michael Douglas' throat cancer treatments and his battle against a lawsuit over recent movie earnings.

Major life events can trigger mood episodes in people with the disorder even if they are otherwise "doing well" — meaning, they are adhering to treatment, have good psychosocial functioning and have a good support system, said Dr. David Solomon, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Brown University and assistant director of the Mood Disorders Program at Rhode Island Hospital.

Bipolar II disorder includes mood episodes of major depression and hypomania, which is euphoria that is less intense than full-blown mania. Bipolar II disorder is less severe than bipolar I disorder, which includes mania, hypomania and major depression. Bipolar disorders affect 2.6 percent of U.S. adults, with the majority of those cases considered severe, according to the National Institutes of Health.

While only Zeta-Jones and her doctor know what triggered her decision to seek help for the disorder, "it would not surprise me that an individual under duress would suffer a mood episode," Solomon told MyHealthNewsDaily.

Stressful life events can't solely cause bipolar disorder, but they can push people who may already be genetically vulnerable for the disorder to express the mood symptoms, he said.

"Most people with the illness have a genetic vulnerability" for the disorder, Solomon said. Some people who are raised in stable and loving homes may never have that vulnerability exploited, and they may live their whole lives without expressing any signs of bipolar disorder.

But for many people — whether they have the genetic vulnerability or not — stressful events occur and things go awry, he said. These stressful life events could trigger a mood episode, as is possibly the case with Zeta-Jones.

"I hope she gets better," Solomon said. "There are lots of good treatments [such as medications and psychotherapy], but there's variability in how patients respond. Given her resources, surely she will be able to avail herself of both, which is a good thing."

Pass it on: Bipolar disorder can be triggered by stressful life events.

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This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Amanda Chan
Amanda Chan was a staff writer for Live Science Health. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.