Reviewed by Jessica Stern, PhD
If you have bipolar 1, a type of bipolar disorderthat causes cycles of extreme high and low moods, you might experience periods of time where you feel like you can accomplish anything. Maybe you’re so energized you feel like you don’t need sleep and can check off every single item on your to-do list instead, or you suddenly have tons of great ideas for work or home projects. Either way: You may feel like your most productive, creative self during manic episodes.
These high-energy times can feel great compared to the lows of depression, and you may feel hesitant to seek out treatment because you’re afraid to lose that “creative spark.” Anxiety about treatment is understandable, but the idea that bipolar 1 breeds creativity—and that treating it will stop those juices from flowing—is actually a harmful misconception that can keep you from getting the treatment you need to improve your mental health and overall well-being.
It may take a bit of time for your moods to stabilize and for you to feel like “yourself” once you start bipolar 1 treatment, but with the right support systems in place, you may feel even more creative—and capable—than before.
Ahead, learn more about the myth that treating bipolar 1 could hinder creativity, and therapists’ recommendations for staying creative after a diagnosis.
The idea that untreated bipolar 1 makes people more creative is untrue—and harmful.
For people who have bipolar 1, mania can definitely feel a lot like creativity. That’s because mania typically causes people to feel more energized and motivated than usual, Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a Chicago-based psychologist in private practice, tells SELF. During manic episodes, people who have bipolar 1 may feel so energized that they don’t sleep as much, or at all. That’s in contrast to depression, which can cause people with bipolar 1 to feel detached, unmotivated, and sluggish, among other potentially debilitating symptoms.
This intense period of energy is unsustainable and can ultimately lead a person to crash and burn and actively become unproductive. It can also cause people with bipolar 1 to become impulsive or even reckless. “There is a part of the frontal lobe [in the brain] that governs impulsiveness, and usually it tells you something may not be a good idea to do,” says Dr. Daramus. “But in mania, that part of the brain is often not working.”
Paired together, excessive energy and a lack of inhibition can make people feel like they can cut loose and do whatever they want. Maybe you feel more “free” when you’re writing or working on an art project, or perhaps you come up with solutions to problems you wouldn’t normally think of during a manic period. But that doesn’t mean you can only access this level of creativity when you’re manic—or that it’s a good or safe idea to opt out of treatment to feel this way.
While mania certainly comes with changes in behavior, without treatment, it can lead to risky—and downright dangerous—decision-making. “You may feel as if you are creative, but from an outsider’s perspective, you might be acting in a bizarre and unusual and unhealthy way,” Jessica Turner, MD, a Florida-based psychiatrist, tells SELF.1 In extreme cases, mania can lead to hallucinations and delusions that require hospitalization.
How to be your most creative self with bipolar treatment
Taking the step to treat your bipolar disorder can feel scary, but the longer you leave your condition untreated, the harder it can be to become emotionally stable. “The more manic episodes you have with untreated bipolar, the more you’re likely to have,” says Dr. Daramus. “Treatment interrupts that cycle and gives the brain time to heal.
Treating bipolar 1, and minimizing those mood highs and lows, can actually help you think more clearly and expansively—without the risks of engaging in risky behavior during a manic episode. But it might take time and a bit of experimenting to get there (think of it as an opportunity to flex those creative muscles). “If you are a creative person, you still will be with treatment,” says Dr. Daramus. “If you’ve been dealing with bipolar 1 for a long time, it can take a little while for that to come back.”
Real talk: You may not feel amazing when you start taking medication, and you may even feel worse initially. Certain bipolar medications can cause some people to feel sluggish or tired, which Dr. Turner says may feel problematic at first if you’ve grown accustomed to the motivated highs of mania. If you’re taking medication and you feel like it’s negatively affecting you, talk to your doctor, who can recommend a different medicine or give you advice on how to avoid unwanted side effects.2
Dr. Turner says it may help to increase a drug’s dosage slowly to avoid side effects, and that some people benefit from taking their bipolar 1 medicine at night. “Then, you can sleep through that tired feeling and wake up feeling energized,” she says. (As a reminder, don’t make any changes to your mental health medication without your doctor’s okay.)
As tempting as it may be to chug coffee or rely on other stimulants to “get in the zone,” Dr. Turner says artificial energy boosts can mess with your sleep schedule—which could increase the risk of a manic episode.3 “It’s really important that people with bipolar disorder don’t do anything to disrupt their sleep, because it could lead to an unstable mood,” she says.
If you keep feeling “blah” once you’re on a stable medication regimen, there’s a lot you can do to help your creative wheels turn. If you miss the feeling of unbridled energy you experienced during manic episodes, Dr. Daramus encourages talking with your therapist or a support group about it. “A lot of times, the problem is not that you are not creative, but that you feel insecure about creativity,” says Dr. Daramus. “That’s something to explore with your therapist or in a therapy group.”
Taking a class about a subject that makes you feel especially inspired may also inspire you to try new things or come up with fresh ideas, says Dr. Daramus. It might help to find a therapist or group who will support you in your creative endeavors, checking in with you about whether you’ve been drawing, singing, or writing (whatever it is you want to do). You can even ask your therapist to suggest creative ways to do your therapy homework or track your therapy goals and progress. Either way, prioritizing creativity is a form of mindfulness—it’s directing your attention where you want it to be—which can help keep your mood stable.4
You may encounter barriers in the process, but remember everybody experiences creative blocks from time to time—even people who don’t have a mental health condition. Try to reflect on times you were able to be creative before your diagnosis. “Have some confidence in yourself that you were able to live creatively without it being so closely tied to a mental health disorder,” says Dr. Turner. Know that you’ll get there again if you’re patient and show yourself some grace as you adjust to treatment.
- Frontiers in Psychiatry, Altered Risk-Taking Behavior in Early-Stage Bipolar Disorder With a History of Psychosis
- Journal of Affective Disorders, Managing the Side Effects Associated With Commonly Used Treatments for Bipolar Depression
- Nature of Science and Sleep, The Role of Sleep in Bipolar Disorder
- Europe’s Journal of Psychology, Mindfulness-Based Treatment for Bipolar Disorder: A Systematic Review of the Literature
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer with over 10 years of experience covering health, psychology, and parenting. In addition to SELF, Ashley’s work has appeared in Forbes, Apartment Therapy, The New York Times, The Guardian, Business Insider, and more.