Bipolar disorder can cause your motivation levels to fluctuate. Here’s how to cope.

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes people to swing between extreme mood states: mania, hypomania, and depression.

During a manic or hypomanic episode, you feel euphoric and full of energy. You may feel invincible, which can lead to actions with harmful consequences. Common signs of mania include a decreased need for sleep, impulsive behaviors around shopping or sex, and fast, disorganized speech.

Conversely, a depressive episode is characterized by low energy, feeling empty, and lacking pleasure from things you used to enjoy. Depression is often associated with low motivation.

Because of its symptoms, bipolar disorder can significantly affect how motivated you feel to reach your goals. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t set and accomplish goals if you live with bipolar disorder. Here’s what you should know.

Like most other serious mental health conditions, bipolar disorder can significantly affect your motivation. Both manic and depressive episodes can make you feel less motivated, although in different ways.

According to 2019 research, people with bipolar disorder have significantly lower motivation levels, especially at work.

To understand how bipolar disorder affects motivation, it’s important to first understand what motivation is from a neuropsychological perspective.

Experts say that behavioral motivation is created by our drive to approach rewarding stimuli and avoid negative stimuli (punishments). However, people with bipolar disorder (and other mental health conditions) have brains that work differently.

Research from 2012 has found that people with bipolar disorder have a hypersensitive behavioral activation system in their brains, leading to too much motivation for pleasurable activities during mania and too little motivation during depression.

Motivation and mania

During manic episodes, you may have difficulty staying motivated for tasks that aren’t “fun” or engaging. You may seek out behaviors that are immediately “rewarding” despite the negative consequences. In other words, in a manic state, you may be focused on pleasure, whatever the cost.

For example, someone in a manic episode may leave their workplace for a last-minute vacation. They are motivated by the “reward” of a fun vacation to the point where they’re willing to pay the price of losing their job. However, it’s hard for them to stay motivated to go to work (while forgoing the vacation).

On top of this, people with bipolar disorder tend to set very high (and often unachievable) goals for themselves when they’re in a manic episode. They can become overly invested in achieving their goals, and their self-worth may be too dependent on whether or not they meet these goals.

Motivation and depression

Depressive states bring the opposite problem with motivation. People in depressive episodes (whether they have depression or bipolar disorder) are generally less motivated. Research reports that people with major depressive disorder are less willing to put in effort for rewards than non-depressed people.

When you have depression you may experience anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure. This could make it so that no reward is worth working hard for.

When you put it all together, this means that if you have bipolar disorder, your motivation levels could swing drastically depending on your mood.

There are many effective ways to treat bipolar disorder. Usually, the first-line treatment for bipolar disorder is a combination of mood-stabilizing medication and therapy.

Some common bipolar disorder medications include:

These medications do come with some side effects, including drowsiness and fatigue.

However, medication should make you feel better — not worse. The right medication should help you manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder, including swings in motivation.

It can be a long journey for you and your psychiatrist to find the right bipolar medication at the right dosage. If you feel like your medication is making you feel even less motivated, it’s important to talk with your psychiatrist.

If you have bipolar disorder and you’re having trouble with motivation, one of the most important things is to take steps toward staying steady — and trying to avoid swinging from one motivational extreme to the other. Getting treatment for bipolar disorder can help with motivation issues.

Here are some tips to help you sustain motivation, even through emotional ups and downs.

Set realistic goals

One characteristic of bipolar disorder is setting extremely high and often unachievable goals. If you are becoming obsessed with achieving success, try to take a step back and set smaller, more realistic goals instead.

When you set smaller goals that you can actually achieve, your sense of self-worth will grow, and it may be easier to sustain motivation even without mania.

Get some exercise

Whether you’re in a manic or depressive episode, physical activity can do a lot to boost your motivation. Exercise has mental health benefits, and it can release endorphins to help you to feel more energized about accomplishing your tasks.

Exercise could be especially helpful if you’re in a depressive episode. Research, including a 2016 study, has found that aerobic activity decreases the symptoms of depression. Just make sure not to overdo it if you’re in a manic episode, as some research suggests exercise may complicate mania.

Focus on the bigger picture

Envision the life and future you want to have for yourself. Be as specific as possible. Where do you want to be living? With whom do you want to spend your time?

Consider creating a vision board of your long-term, big-picture goals. This can help you remember where you’re trying to get to. When you’re in a manic episode, you may feel tempted to engage in whatever behaviors bring you the most reward, no matter the cost. Keeping your bigger goals in mind may help alleviate this.

Try using big-picture goals as a guide to help you stay motivated during daily tasks.

Get support for bipolar disorder

Lastly, if your bipolar disorder is untreated, then your motivation may wane no matter what you do. Getting the right treatment is important; without it, your symptoms may remain or get worse.

Once your bipolar disorder symptoms are well-managed, you might find that your motivation naturally begins to increase as well.

Because of how bipolar disorder affects both your brain and your behavior, you might find that it changes your motivation levels.

When you’re in a depressive episode it might be difficult to maintain motivation to do anything, even rewarding activities. When you’re in a manic episode you might be too motivated to engage in rewarding behaviors but have a hard time being motivated for boring or repetitive tasks.

It can help to set realistic goals (even during mania), keep your eye on the bigger picture, and get treatment for bipolar disorder.