For Families and Friends

Mood disorders affect the whole family. Moods can be contagious: the irritability or excitement of mania, the gloom of depression.  During a severe episode, it can feel like you are always in crisis mode, and in that mode it becomes hard to think clearly.  You may wonder how to react, how to help, and which actions come from the illness and which come from the real person. 

There is not a lot you can do to change people during a mood episode.  Remember: it is hard enough to change people when they aren’t having mood swings!  Still, it is likely you will find yourself arguing with a manic relative or trying to motivate a loved-one who is depressed.  These attempts can frustrate you and your relative, yet they are natural reactions to the stress you are under and no one can control them entirely.

There are some indirect ways you can help your relative, besides guiding them to treatment.  A lot of research has shown that certain ways of relating can prevent mood swings, while others can increase them.

First, focus on increasing these in the relationship:

1)      Emotional warmth and empathy:
Empathy is a form of compassionate, nonjudgmental understanding.  When we are empathic, it usually shows in our face, voice and body language, as the pictures to the right demonstrate.  Empathy doesn’t mean knowing someone fully, but simply wanting to understand them as they are without trying to change or judge them.  In this way it is similar to mindfulness, a mental practice that can reduce stress and increase empathy. 

It is also empathic to clarify and respect the boundaries between you and them. Balancing your own independence with your connection to your loved one is not an easy task. Keep this part in mind as you read about “over-involvement” on page 2.

2)     Positive comments:
Pay attention to what your relative can do. Notice improvement. Admire their struggle.  Also helpful are neutral comments, which describe what you see without judging it, trying to change it, or suggesting what the cause or motivation is. 

3)     Optimism about the illness:
Your loved one may forget that recovery is possible in the midst of an episode.  Be careful that you don’t lose this awareness, and express hope openly.  Likewise, make efforts to remember how they were before the episode, and communicate optimism that they’ll be that way again. 

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—Updated 8/5/11 by Chris Aiken, MD





Family warmth

Non-verbal communication is an important part of empathy and warmth, as the pictures above demonstrate.