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 Marcia Purse

Studying a Link Between Stress and Bipolar Disorder

By May 13, 2013

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New link between stress and bipolar disorderA newly published study says that having a bipolar parent increases the everyday level of a key stress hormone. This might seem like a no-brainer, but in fact the study results are more interesting than that. For one thing, they weren't looking at young children, but at offspring between the ages of 14 and 28, so many of the study participants were not actually living with the bipolar parent any more - yet the stress effect continued.

"Previous research has shown that children of parents with bipolar disorder are four times as likely to develop mood disorders as those from parents without the condition," said the senior author Dr. Mark Ellenbogen. "The goal of our study was to determine how this is happening."

They already knew that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol often occur in people who later develop bipolar disorder - and that high stress levels can contribute to developing BP. What they found out in this study is that people with a bipolar parent react to both low-level and high-level stress by producing more cortisol than those with the same stress level but no bipolar parent.

Here's an illustration: Megan, age 22, has a parent with bipolar disorder. Her best friend Laura, also 22, does not. One day the two of them have a terrible fight and their stress levels go sky-high. But Megan's body produces a lot more cortisol than Laura's does. And no matter how much stress there is on a given day, any stress will consistently produce more cortisol in Megan than in Laura. Because both high cortisol levels and high stress can contribute to the development of bipolar disorder, Megan's risk of becoming bipolar is higher than Laura's.

You might say hey, we already knew that, because we know children of parents with BP are much more likely to get BP themselves. But the point is, we now have a biological mechanism that could be part of the reason they're more likely to develop bipolar disorder. These results, said Dr. Ellenbogen, might lead to finding ways to prevent the increased sensitivity from developing.

His conclusion suggests that if Megan had learned better ways to cope with stress early in life, it could make it less likely that she'd go on to develop BP. Now wouldn't that be awesome!

C. S. Ostiguy, Ellenbogen M. A., Walker C.-D., Walker E. F., Hodgins S. Sensitivity to stress among the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder: a study of daytime cortisol levels Psychological Medicine. Published online 2011.
Pederson, Traci. Children of Bipolar Parents Have Highly Reactive Stress Hormone. PsychCentral.com. May 6, 2011.

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May 10, 2011 at 9:52 am
(1) J Swarts says:

Thanks for sharing the latest findings regarding cortisol, stress and their relationship to BP. This is another step towards preventing, curing, and/or managing stress related mental health issues.
Research and the financing of much more research in mental health in general needs to be a much higher priority than it is today.

May 10, 2011 at 12:23 pm
(2) JB3 says:


Thanks so much for this extremely insightful article. This information really answers more questions that I have concerning my own personal battles with BP.

I also have to agree totally with, J. Swarts, concerning making BP research a very high priority.

Many children are being diagnosed correctly much earlier; and more adults are admitting that they, in fact, do need treatment for BP.

Prayerfully, the huge stigma & stain that yet lingers like a dark cloud over the subject of mental health will finally begin to be seen in a much different light.

May 10, 2011 at 5:21 pm
(3) Michele says:

“His conclusion suggests that if Megan had learned better ways to cope with stress early in life, it could make it less likely that she’d go on to develop BP.”

Yes, wouldn’t that be awesome. BUT I would like to point out that as a child, many are not even concidered to need coping mechanisms. How would one know to teach one child coping mechanisms and if so, at what age? If extreme stress or anxiety bring on a bp incident, then what do we do? If someone dies in my family how can I stop that or cope with that except through the grieving process…bit what about a child who doesn’t understand the phases of grief?

My point is, not everyone can learn coping strategies let alone remember them in stressful situations…and not all stressful situation will be impacted or aleviated by ‘coping skills’. I’ve learned a ton of them, but when I’m manic or depressed, all that goes out the window until I become more even.

May 11, 2011 at 9:38 pm
(4) cheryetc says:

I wish I’d known sooner. My 18 yr old daughter has been struggling with stress/anxiety for the past few years and started meds for it a year ago. She was just diagnosed with BP yesterday. Maybe if I had done more to teach her better coping skills, I could have stopped it!!

May 16, 2011 at 11:59 pm
(5) Charlda says:

I am a 44 year old woman I have never learned coping skills either,I’ve had bi polar for over 10 years and regular take my medication, I believe one can learn how but it take a lot of patience when I am struggling with anxiety no one undrstands how I feel, It can be very difficult to manage ones thought and feelings but I believe it can be done.

May 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm
(6) Jas says:

“His conclusion suggests that if Megan had learned better ways to cope with stress early in life, it could make it less likely that she’d go on to develop BP”

I think that this statement is ridiculous. Given that Megan was probably a baby or an young child when she first witnessed a raging or psychotic parent or a deperessed parent it is highly unlikely that she would have “coping skills”. How does a young child use “coping skills”? This sounds like a make the victim responsible approach.

August 13, 2011 at 9:05 pm
(7) Bob says:

This is great information and all, yet based on the extremely high dysfunctional society as a whole it may just as well be information on the wall.

May 14, 2013 at 11:31 am
(8) Polly says:

My husband is bipolar and our daughter for sure has more stress than her brother (he was from my first marriage), she is not bipolar but I do worry that she could develop it one day because she stresses over everything… :( she does have OCD but doesn’t want to talk about it. :( She is not bad enough at this point (age 15) to seek treatment but if she gets worse or if her grades start to slip etc. I will get her in for treatment if I have to drag her kicking and screaming. :) thanks for sharing this research with us!!! Love your newsletter!

May 14, 2013 at 11:47 am
(9) Lino Torres says:

What is the situation with Parent with Bipolar children??

May 14, 2013 at 12:59 pm
(10) Kermit Cole says:

This information could just as easily be seen to suggest that someone who is stressed in childhood will develop into someone who manifests all the behaviors that get labeled as bipolar. There is nothing here that suggests that a disease entity called “bipolar” exists. If a parent behaves in the ways that are labeled bipolar, the child will be stressed, and therefore there will be stress hormones as evidence of that. They, then, will grow up to be someone who behaves that way, too. Everything written here only implies the existence of an “illness”, which is too bad if it means that other ways of working with the situation – ones that don’t call immediately for pharmaceutical intervention, or fail to tend to the stressors or their impact in favor of a “magic bullet” approach – are not considered.

May 14, 2013 at 3:22 pm
(11) Rider3 says:

I was diagnosed back in 11/2009 with BP. I’ve attended counseling after counseling sessions, hopsitalization, etc. Fact of the matter is this: You can try to learn the various coping methods, but when you are in a panic attack, you cannot get your brain to think clearly and logically. This article really didn’t provide any new or helpful information.

May 14, 2013 at 11:16 pm
(12) ella says:

my husband’s father was bipolar. I worry for my kids, though we did not live longer with my father-in-law, still I worry for my kids. are they a risk, too? if yes, how can I detect or prevent it from affecting my kids?

May 15, 2013 at 10:34 am
(13) Shawn says:

Absolutely NO DOUBT that stress (cortisol hormone) and BP are directly related. A friend once told me, you don’t have a mental illness you have an issue dealing with stress. We do NOT react well to increases in the hormone AT ALL.

October 9, 2013 at 12:56 am
(14) Sabine says:

I am not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic.
I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.
Thanks for great info I was looking for this information for
my mission.

January 8, 2014 at 12:00 pm
(15) marie says:

i believe this is true …im am bipolar . .with 18 years of not being on meds inbetween my 42 yrs of life …stress is a huge deal to my health

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