How Wilderness Can Help Teens with Bipolar Disorder Find Balance in Their Lives

Teenagers are known for mood swings, but sometimes their high highs and low lows may be more than just hormonal changes. It is hard to recognize bipolar disorder in teens when transient periods of moodiness are normalized.  Knowing the difference between bipolar disorder, depression, and teen mood swings is important in determining what treatment options will be effective for your child. For teens with bipolar disorder who experience unpredictable mood swings, wilderness therapy can help them find more balance in their lives. 

What is Bipolar Disorder? Exploring Both Ends of the Bipolar Spectrum

The main defining feature of bipolar disorder is periods of mania lasting at least a few days but often weeks or months that alternate with periods of intense depression. The mood swings can be mild or extreme. They can come on slowly or quickly, within hours to days. Mania is not just periods of happiness or stability between deep sadness and low energy. 
Depression is characterized by

  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Feeling misunderstood and extremely sensitive
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Irritability or impulsivity
  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Social withdrawal
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness

Mania is characterized by 

  • Extremely high energy
  • Racing thoughts and/or rambling speech
  • Grandiose ideas  
  • Inflated sense of self-esteem
  • Reduced need for sleep without fatigue
  • Restlessness and being easily distracted
  • Increased pursuit of risky and impulsive behaviors, such as sexuality, spending, substance use

Predominant Polarity

A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that identifying a predominant polarity, in either length or frequency of episodes, helps professionals individualize treatment strategies. While teenagers diagnosed with bipolar disorder must exhibit characteristics of both episodes distinctly, the length of episodes is often unequal. Some teenagers have more frequent periods of mania; others have longer depressive episodes. As a result, teens may be more likely to learn coping strategies to help them deal with the kind of episode they experience the most often. However, the same coping strategies they might learn to manage feelings of depression may not work when they are experiencing mania. 
A common stereotype about teens with bipolar disorder is that they prefer manic episodes and romanticize their productivity, energy, and spontaneity. Some teens may feel more social or extroverted when manic and, therefore, are more likely to reach out for support. When feeling depressed, they may withdraw from friends and family if they feel more comfortable socializing when they have higher energy.  
Learning to live with bipolar disorder requires learning strategies to manage symptoms that may occur at both ends of the spectrum, not just one. Wilderness therapy takes a holistic approach to managing bipolar disorder that prepares teens to apply skills across different settings and mood states.

How Can a Wilderness Environment Help:

Find the right medication. Drug therapy is the main form of treatment to manage symptoms of bipolar. Many people try a number of medications before they find the right balance and may have to continue to adjust doses depending on your functioning. Medication should be supervised closely and taken consistently to notice the effects. 
Establish routines. People with bipolar are familiar with inconsistency and unpredictability in their lives. Research suggests that instability in circadian rhythms are a strong predictor of bipolar and that following a daily schedule can help keep it in check. This may include a regular sleep sleep schedule, eating at regular times, working similar hours, and exercising around the same time. At Trails, we split time between being on base camp and going on backpacking trips and follow different schedules depending on the location. Students’ days are structured by outdoor education, therapy, survival skills, and healthy habits, regarding sleep, nutrition, and exercise. 
Encourage them to stay active. Exercise releases endorphins that stabilizes the connection between the brain’s reward system and processing system. Exercise releases a more reliable form of “feel good” neurotransmitters: endorphins help in improving mood by reducing symptoms of stress, while the reward of dopamine from other pleasurable activities may influence manic symptoms. Integrating hiking into our program improves students’ physical health as well as their relationship with and appreciation for the natural world. 
Teach them Mindfulness Skills. Trails incorporates mindfulness and yoga into students’ daily routines to help them develop a deeper sense of their body and regain control of their actions and internal processes. Mindfulness helps stabilize mood, improve attention, calm anxiety, and find a balance between extreme moods.

Trails Carolina Can Help

Trails Carolina is a wilderness therapy program that helps teens ages 10-17 who are struggling with mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, depression, and risky behaviors. This program uses adventure-based therapy to help students gain a new sense of self-awareness, confidence, and independence. The skills they learn throughout the wilderness program offer long-term benefits towards their ability to successfully self-navigate in the real world. By removing teens from their fast-paced environment into a safe, nurturing, and peaceful environment, they are able to focus on improving their mood and establishing realistic goals. Trails Carolina gives students the tools they need to lead happy and healthy lives. 
Contact us at 800-975-7303. We can help your family today!

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Avatar of Jeremy Whitworth

Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

Margot Lowman August 2022

Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

Winnifred Wilson July 2022


Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.

Kristin Brace June 2022


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