Arguing with someone who has bipolar disorder: Why it’s not a good idea—plus tips for more constructive conversations

We all experience days when we’re just not in the mood to mince words; which means some conversations may get a little heated under the right circumstances. And often, we tend to snap at the people who are closest to us; the friends and family we care about. 

Those arguments can and do happen, but what if the person we’re arguing with has bipolar disorder? How does this affect the conversation, and how should an argument with a loved one who has bipolar disorder be handled?

 

Should You Argue with a Person Who Has Bipolar Disorder?

No. Though arguing is sometimes effective as a form of communication, it shouldn’t become a normalized behavior, especially if someone is emotionally charged due to bipolar disorder. If they’re receiving treatment (and they express willingness to talk to you about it), ask them about what their limits are and understand their boundaries

At baseline, all emotions are valid. Having a bipolar diagnosis doesn’t mean that your sadness, anger, or any other emotion is invalid. If they’ve come to you and expressed something that is clearly not grounded in reality, it’s time for both of you to hit the brakes.

You don’t have the same sense of what reality is at that moment—so turning things up a notch by arguing will not help. It’s like throwing gasoline on a fire, and wires will get crossed.

How Do You Calm an Angry Person with Bipolar Disorder? 3 Tips

It’s good to use some caution before wading into an argument of any kind. And if you’ve come to expect that, on occasion, you might “get into it” with a loved one who has a mental health condition, taking extra caution is always a good thing. 

When tempers start to flare and you feel the temptation to say something you shouldn’t, there are some things you can do to prevent both of you from getting upset—regardless of whether the other person has bipolar disorder or not. 

Here are some ways to navigate a conversation with an angry loved one: 

  1. Begin by watching your tone and and watching your body language. Slow everything down so that you can notice what’s happening for yourself. Are you tense? Hunched over? Are your fists clenched? 
  2. Consider what’s upsetting the other person. Just don’t assume that someone is upset only because they have a mental health condition like bipolar disorder I or II. Their feelings might be more justified than you’re giving them credit for. 
  3. Set boundaries with someone you know has a tendency to get angry. And maintain those boundaries. This means being consistent. For example, if you say that you need a 5 minute break if they begin cursing, take that break, and take it for the full 5 minutes every time they swear at you.   

Your job is to set and maintain your own boundaries: You can’t control other peoples’ behaviors or emotions. Ultimately, the most you can do for the other person is to prevent yourself from trying to solve their mental health condition. Be empathetic, patient, and supportive—but don’t let someone think it’s okay to continually explode. 

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What Happens When Someone with Bipolar Disorder Gets Angry?

To understand what happens when someone with bipolar disorder gets upset, it’s important to remember that often, their emotional response seems rational to them, but the reasons behind them aren’t linear. What they feel may not make sense, or appear logical to you.  

If someone is in a manic state, they may be angry because they aren’t being understood by you, or feel as though you can’t keep pace with their thoughts. You don’t have to understand completely to be empathetic and patient—and you’ll be able to soothe their emotions more easily if you remain as such. 

“Bipolar anger” may be faster to ignite than someone in a neurotypical mental space might expect. In simple terms, they may be capable of going from 0-100 quite quickly. But anger is not specific to bipolar disorder. 

When working with someone who is expressing anger, the same principles still apply, regardless of their mental health. It may look different in different situations, but pretty much, the same rules apply. 

Don’t stigmatize their condition. They aren’t experiencing psychosis – treat them as a normal person. But if the person is prone to being disrespectful or is quite angry, maybe give them some time to cool off before approaching them. 

In some cases, someone with bipolar disorder can get angry more easily because they’re suffering from a manic or hypomanic state, or even a depressive state that’s induced by their condition. Spot the differences between the three: 

  • A manic episode lasts at least a week. It’s defined by a persistent state of mania, where most of the day is spent feeling very grandiose, energetic, and goal-oriented. Someone in a manic state needs less sleep than usual, and may be more talkative than they normally are. 
  • A person with bipolar disorder who is experiencing mania may speak via “stream of consciousness,” without a filter. Their words and ideas seem exciting, but perhaps a bit confusing to other people. Unfortunately, manic states often involve risk-taking activity, which means, especially with undiagnosed individuals, these episodes often end in a police interaction or with them becoming hospitalized.
  • A hypomanic episode lasts at least 4 days and is harder to detect. Think of a manic state, but less intense. A person with bipolar disorder experiencing hypomania will show an increase in goal-directed activity, and people around them will realize something has changed. 
  • Someone may feel emotionally elevated and energized, but not to the same extent as they would in a fully manic state. That said, hypomania is clinically significant and is not rooted in reality. Hypomanic states may be more common with females and childbirth may be a specific trigger for a hypomanic episode.
  • A depressive episode lasts about two weeks, usually. Someone with bipolar disorder who’s experiencing a depressive episode will experience reduced appetite, energy, and may be more irritable than usual. Extreme feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and a bleak world outlook are common. 

A person in a depressive state is likely to become socially withdrawn, and will suffer poor performance at work. Friends, family, and partners may be more quick to notice the signs of a depressive episode than the individual themselves.

Sometimes, the best course of action is to remove yourself from the situation. It is not abandonment.

What Should You Not Say to Someone with Bipolar Disorder?

Generally it’s not helpful to try and problem-solve for someone who has bipolar disorder. Most people with bipolar disorder know how to solve an issue if it’s bothering them; they just want their intense emotions to be validated. This is how you can help vs. arguing, which isn’t going to accomplish anything.

Because their emotional state can be delicate, here are a few things you should not say to an angry person with bipolar disorder. Do not:

  • Attack their character
  • Question their intelligence
  • Make it “all” about their mental illness 
  • Bring up their past mistakes 
  • Tell them they’re sensitive (in some circumstances, this can be a form of gaslighting)
  • Refer to them as “crazy”

Instead, be direct and kind. Don’t lie if you’re upset, or if you need space from them. And while it might feel comforting to you to bring other people in to resolve a conflict if someone has a mental health condition, it isn’t always appropriate.

Their anger may be sparked by actions, objects, or information that their friends, family, or loved ones aren’t aware of—and the disconnect can be frustrating and lonely for them. You may say something or trigger something without realizing it. 

That’s why boundaries are important. And those tips, mentioned above, can help you prevent yourself from saying anything unnecessary or hurtful in response to an angry person with bipolar disorder. 

However, sometimes, boundaries can still be crossed by one or both of you. If you’re ever concerned about violence of any kind, report those immediate safety concerns to the appropriate parties such as 911, 988 (the suicide and mental health crisis lifeline), or another crisis intervention service.

Express your concern, but be firm if you begin to feel threatened by someone who is getting increasingly angry. Keep yourself calm and regulated, listen for their real emotions—the real underlying emotions that may be hidden by the anger you see and feel.

What Happens When You Argue with a Bipolar Person?

One of the keys to de-escalating arguments with someone who has bipolar disorder, as ironic as it sounds, is to not let those talks turn into arguments in the first place. When you argue with a person who has bipolar disorder, tension can escalate more quickly and more intensely if you choose (it’s a choice) to engage with them.

It’s everyone’s responsibility, you and your loved one with bipolar disorder, to uphold boundaries and rules of respect. If there aren’t any, that’s when issues will arise. When you argue with someone who has bipolar disorder, you’re crossing your boundaries, and may begin crossing theirs, too. 

What Aggravates Bipolar Disorder?

The following are common issues and situations that can trigger or aggravate bipolar disorder I and II: 

Once they seek mental health services, and talk through their timeline with a professional, many people with bipolar disorder I and II can remember a specific time in their lives when they were clearly “not themselves.” And often, these times were triggered by stressful situations and events, like the ones listed above.

How Do You Calm Bipolar Rage?

If there is intense irritability or anger, whether somebody is in a manic, hypomanic, or depressive episode, remember that you can’t control other people. You can only set your boundaries and maintain them. 

If somebody is actually carrying a bipolar diagnosis and is angry, set your limits and plan for safety before the arguing starts. This goes for anyone who is experiencing blind rage, too. Basically, the rules still apply as they would in any situation, but be a bit more careful. 

Ask what’s helpful for them. “Bipolar rage” isn’t a real thing, so don’t assume that they’re unstable. Treat them with the same compassion and consideration you expect in return; they’re a human being, not a diagnosis.

Bipolar disorder I and II aren’t always easy conditions to be around, but by learning to extinguish arguments proactively, you can do a lot to improve your relationship with a loved one who has bipolar disorder.

Table of contents

Should You Argue with a Person Who Has Bipolar Disorder?

How Do You Calm an Angry Person with Bipolar Disorder? 3 Tips

What Happens When Someone with Bipolar Disorder Gets Angry?

What Should You Not Say to Someone with Bipolar Disorder?

What Aggravates Bipolar Disorder?

How Do You Calm Bipolar Rage?

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Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC

Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Jason Crosby

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

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  • De Stefani, E., & De Marco, D. (2019, September 24). Language, gesture, and emotional communication: An embodied view of social interaction. Frontiers in psychology. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6769117/

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