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Bipolar Disorder: How Running Helps

I’d had the same psychiatrist, a woman I trust with my life, for years. I thought we’d covered all the ground. But a few years before I started running, dark, angry moods, yelling fits, and tantrums transformed me into someone I didn’t recognize. As I pondered her questions, searching for a cause, a memory surfaced.

“There were those times I nearly maxed out my credit cards, and had to return a ton of things when the bills came.”

She nodded, then said: “I think you might have bipolar disorder.”

It took a medication change and more therapy, but eventually, I knew she was right.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar advocate Gabe Howard explains his take in this bpHope article:

Bipolar disorder is a spectrum of moods that goes from the lowest of lows (suicidal depression) all the way up to the highest of highs (“godlike” mania), and everything in between. The person suffering from bipolar is unable to control where their moods fall on this spectrum, or how long that mood will last before transitioning. Bipolar disorder is a severe and persistent mental illness. Typical symptoms include racing thoughts (which lead to hurried and nonsensical speech); rapid mood swings, ranging from depression all the way to mania; staying awake for days at a time without tiring; and grandiose thinking, such as believing you have more fame, money, or authority than you really do. Bipolar disorder is an illness that affects the mind. Specifically, it alters a person’s ability to control their moods, thoughts, and the way they see the world around them. A person suffering from bipolar will travel back and forth on a very long mood spectrum that they cannot control. This includes moods typical people will never experience, such as suicidal thoughts or living in a consequence-free environment where a person feels invincible. Three Simple Ways to Explain Bipolar Disorder to Others” by Gabe Howard in bpHope

There is no blood test to diagnose bipolar disorder. Most of us confirm bipolar disorder with the help of a mental health professional. My bipolar II disorder resisted discovery because I “present” (look, act, feel) as depressed. Several health care providers had diagnosed me with chronic, severe, recurrent depression. That felt accurate.

But, as often happens, one medication stopped working and my doc prescribed another.

At first, the results pleased us both. I had more energy. My mood lifted. I felt almost “normal.” But over time, that happiness shifted into a high-energy anger bordering on rage. That’s what tipped off my psychiatrist. The new med had flipped me into a hypomanic state. If I wasn’t bipolar, this probably wouldn’t happen.

World Bipolar Day

Nita Sweeney running with Scarlet, the pupperina

Bipolar by the Numbers

On World Bipolar Day, let’s look at the statistics:

  1. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects men and women equally, with about 2.8% of the U.S. population diagnosed with bipolar disorder and nearly 83% of cases classified as severe.

  2. The median age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25 years , although the illness can start in early childhood or as late as the 40’s and 50’s.

  3. More than two-thirds of people with bipolar disorder have at least one close relative with the illness or with unipolar major depression, indicating that the disease has a heritable component.

  4. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance explains that an equal number of men and women develop bipolar illness and it is found in all ages, races, ethnic groups and social classes.

Why running helps

Runner’s High

We’ve all hear about endorphins as an explanation for that post-run glow. In fact, the neurotransmitters working behind the scenes are endocannabinoids, similar to those stimulated by cannabis. No wonder they call it “runner’s high!”

Sense of Achievement

Beyond the neurotransmitters resulting from physical activity, running offers a sense of accomplishment. You set out to run X miles and if you do, go you! If you’re like me (old and gold-star oriented) you print a training schedule and tape it to the side of your bookcase. Each scheduled run not only earns you those happy physical activity chemicals, but you enjoy the bliss of checking off that day’s run. Each check mark generates a dopamine hit! More sweet brain flood.


One of the greatest benefits of running, even to runners who prefer to hit the pavement solo, are the bonds formed within the running community. Hello Still I Run! I’m so grateful to have found this community. Most runners, regardless of their emotional issues, enjoy the camaraderie and friendly competition found among their running peers. Those of us with bipolar disorder and other mental health challenges find additional support from people facing the same struggles and finding a common solution, one that involves what I like to call “left foot, right foot road therapy.”

Let’s Keep Going!

Before I found running, I took six different meds for various symptoms ranging from anxiety to lethargy. Now, ten years later, I take a tiny dose of one antidepressant and another pill for a thyroid condition. I can’t promise this result to everyone, and I know a day may come where I will need more or different medications. In the meantime, I intend to celebrate World Bipolar Day and keep running as long as I can, hoping to reap the mental health rewards.


Nita Sweeney is the author of the award-winning memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, the journal You Should Be Writing, and the ebook Three Ways to Heal Your Mind. She lives in central Ohio, USA with her husband, Ed, and their yellow Labrador retriever, Scarlet. Follow Nita on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, LinkedIn, or Medium.


By Nita Sweeney

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