Memory and Cognitive Problems in Bipolar Disorder Plus Coping Skills – Bipolar Burble Blog

Memory problems are common in bipolar disorder, as is cognitive impairment. It makes sense, really. If our brains misfire when it comes to mood and its related symptoms, why wouldn’t they misfire in other ways as well? People don’t like to talk about this, though. People enjoy the narrative that those with bipolar disorder are more intelligent than others (which is not true), whereas the reality, which is that people with bipolar are additionally impaired, is something people like to glass over. But people with bipolar have memory and cognitive problems.

Memory Problems in Bipolar Disorder

There are multiple types of memory researchers look at, but taken as a whole, people with bipolar disorder have impaired memory. Memory problems in bipolar disorder include:

Years of studies go on and on. One of the most interesting things to note is that memory problems in those with bipolar disorder are typically present even during euthymia (not during hypomania, mania, or depression). This means that the memory problems are related to having bipolar disorder and not related to a specific mood.

As for me, I know I have memory problems, and they have just gotten worse over time. I feel like I can’t remember something from one moment to another. I’m constantly looking things up that I know I know but can’t remember. It’s beyond frustrating.

Cognitive Impairments in Those with Bipolar Disorder

Similar to memory, there are many domains of cognition studied by researchers, and bipolar disorder has been shown to create impairment in multiple types of cognitive functioning. Most of the above-linked papers also talk about problems of cognitive functioning as well. The aspect of cognitive functioning I see noted a lot is problems in executive function. Many details of bipolar disorder and problems with executive function have been studied to the point where executive dysfunction has even been shown in the offspring of those with bipolar disorder.

According to Medical News Today, executive function skills help people complete tasks and interact with others. They include a range of skills, such as:

  • Planning and organization
  • Concentrating and managing mental focus
  • Analyzing and processing information
  • Managing emotions and behavior
  • Remembering details
  • Managing time
  • Multitasking
  • Solving problems

Executive dysfunction impairs some of these skills, affecting a person’s ability to manage and organize themselves to achieve goals.

In other words, it’s no wonder people with bipolar disorder have such a hard time with planning, moving forward, and achieving goals.

Fighting Memory Problems and Cognitive Problems in Bipolar Disorder

One interesting study showed that exercise can actually improve cognitive functions. This study was done on healthy people, not those with bipolar disorder, so one should be cautious when generalizing their results to a different population, but it’s possible this could be a useful technique in helping the cognitive impairment found in bipolar disorder.

Another interesting small study showed that cognitive performance and brain health in those with bipolar disorder were improved after eight hours of cognitive reasoning training. (The training delivered information processing strategies that were implemented and applicable to various daily living contexts.) This is actually really good news because it means that we can, at least partially, learn our way out of some of the cognitive impairment.

Coping Skills for Memory Problems and Cognitive Problems in Bipolar Disorder

There are many coping skills I have used when dealing with memory problems and cognitive impairment. Here are a few I have either used or have gleaned from others:

  • Carry a recorder (you can use your cell phone) and record absolutely any complex thought you have so you can return to it later. (Note that on a cell phone, you can usually name your recordings. This is helpful in organizing them and going back to them later.) (Thanks, Penny.)
  • Repeat things you need to remember. Repeat things in your head to try to remember them better. You can also sometimes associate an image with what you need to remember. For example, if I have to remember that I took a medication at 8:30, I’ll picture a clock with that time on it so I can recall it later.
  • Write down everything on sticky notes so you can put them around your house and have the information where you need it.
  • Put things you need to remember where you will (maybe literally) trip over them. For example, put your pill bottles in the sink so that when you wash your hands, they will be impossible to miss, and you will remember to take your medication. Similarly, I block my bedroom door with things I need to remember for the following day. I can’t leave my bedroom without seeing them.
  • Write down the steps when planning something more complex. You can then refer to it later.
  • Program your phone or computer with reminders and tasks for completion each day. If you have to program it for noon every day to take your midday medication, then do it.
  • Write lists for everything, including your priorities. It feels great to cross something off a list (really).
  • Look for life skills courses offered through mental health organizations. You might even get really lucky and find information problems for cognitive remediation (to aid in repairing cognitive dysfunction).
  • Learn about project management. Search online for a self-paced course or even take a course at your local learning annex. Planning strategies for a project are just like the ones you can use for your life.

(If you have a favorite technique, please leave it in the comments.)

Finally, try to show yourself grace when your memory or cognitive problems crop up. Al the coping skills in the world won’t handle everything. All the trying in the world won’t handle everything. You need to be willing to give yourself a break when you’re imperfect. Additional pressure on yourself won’t help, I promise.

So, in short, if you find you have memory problems with bipolar disorder or cognitive problems with bipolar disorder, it’s not just you; they are absolutely real things. That being said, you can try to ameliorate their effects and cope with them more effectively.

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