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how do mood stabilizers work

How Do Mood Stabilizers Work?

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A mood stabilizer is a type of medication that helps people control and ”even out”  mood swings such as 

They work by decreasing abnormal activity in the brain. Many people don’t fully understand how mood-stabilizing medications work. Scientists believe that they influence certain neurotransmitters in the brain (chemicals in the nerve cells) that may play a part in causing mood disturbance. Evidence has shown that anticonvulsants ( a type of mood stabilizer) reduce the “excitability” of nerve impulses in the brain.

The clinical effects of lithium were discovered in the 1940s. Since then, it has become a widely used medication. The clinical features of other mood stabilizers were discovered in the 1970s and 80s. They don’t “cure” mood swings, but they do often provide notable relief from the symptoms. 

What Do Mood Stabilizers Do?

Doctors use mood stabilizers mainly to treat bipolar disorder, mood swings linked with other mental disorders, and sometimes, to strengthen the effects of other medications used to treat depression. Because mood stabilizers work to decrease abnormal activity in the brain, they can also be used to treat:

Effects of Mood Stabilizing Medication

Typically, mood stabilizing drugs treat the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Although people with other conditions such as schizoaffective disorder may also be helped by them.

 There are three major uses for mood stabilizers:

  1. Reduce severe symptoms of mania or depression to a manageable level
  2. Stabilize mood swings
  3. Prevent symptom relapses and hospitalizations

The medications stabilize mood and decrease the associated symptoms such as agitation, sleep problems, hallucinations, and delusions. If the patient is already taking medications, the dose may be increased. Even when symptoms are under control by mood stabilizers, these medications can help prevent relapses and rehospitalization for individuals with bipolar and schizoaffective disorder.

What Are Different Types of Mood Stabilizers?


Lithium is a mood stabilizer that’s commonly used to treat bipolar disorder. It is prescribed as:

  • lithium carbonate (Camcolit, Pradel, Liskonum)
  • lithium citrate (Li-liquid, Pradel)

Common side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Weight gain
  • Slowed thinking
  • Fatigue
  • Tremor

Serious side effects include:

  • Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Diarrhea
  • Confusion


Some anticonvulsant medications help stabilize mood. These drugs are also referred to as anti-epileptic medication. Anticonvulsants that are also used as mood stabilizers include:

  • carbamazepine (Tegretol)
  • lamotrigine (Lamictal)
  • valproate (Depakote, Epilim)

Common side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Nausea
  • Headache 
  • Lower sex drive

Serious side effects include:

  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Jaundice or liver damage
  • Vision problems


Some antipsychotic medications are also used as mood stabilizers, as part of the treatment for bipolar disorder. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, an organization that  suggests guidelines for the best practices in healthcare, has recommended these antipsychotics as the best medication for bipolar disorder:

  • haloperidol (Dozic, Haldol, Haldol decanoate, Serenace)
  • olanzapine (Zalasta, Zyprexa, ZypAdhera)
  • quetiapine (Atrolak, Biquelle, Ebesque, Seroquel, Tenprolide, Zaluron)
  • risperidone (Risperdal, Risperdal Consta)
  • asenapine–also sometimes used as a treatment for mania

Common side effects include:

  • Weight gain
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness

Serious side effects include:

  • Vomiting 
  • Low blood pressure
  • Uncontrollable movements (such as tics and tremors)
  • Blurred vision
  • Low white blood cell count

Are Antidepressants Mood Stabilizers?

Because antidepressant drugs help to lift your mood when you’re experiencing depression, some people assume that antidepressants are mood stabilizers. However, mood stabilizers don’t include antidepressants. They are a separate type of psychiatric medication.

Signs You May Need a Mood Stabilizer

People that experience episodes of mania, hypomania, or depression may need mood-stabilizing medication. This is called an acute episode. For some people, this requires long-term treatment to keep it from happening. You may experience depression or mania if you have a condition such as:

Following are the signs and symptoms of mania, hypomania, and depression that can be treated with mood-stabilizing medications.


Symptoms of mania can include:

  • Feeling excited and happy, even when things aren’t going well
  • Being full of new, exciting ideas
  • Moving from one idea to another rapidly
  • Hearing voices other people can’t hear
  • Irritability
  • Feeling more important than usual
  • Talking quickly, jumping from one idea to another, thoughts racing
  • Struggling to focus and being easily distracted
  • Being overly familiar with people
  • Trouble sleeping or feeling like you don’t want to sleep
  • Believing that you can do much more than you actually can
  • Making big or unusual decisions without thinking them through
  • Doing things you wouldn’t normally do and causing problems such as:spending a lot of money being more interested in sex
  • using alcohol or drugs
  • gambling
  • making ill-considered business decisions.


Hypomania is the same as mania but with milder symptoms. And the treatment for hypomania is similar to the treatment for mania.


Symptoms of depression can include:

  • low mood,
  • Feeling tired and having less energy
  • Being negative and hopeless
  • Feeling worthless or hopeless, and guilty
  • Being less interested in things you normally enjoyed
  • Problems concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Feeling irritable and restless
  • Not being able to sleep or sleeping too much
  • Being more hungry or less hungry than usual
  • Gaining or losing weight whey you weren’t trying to
  • Thoughts of death and suicide or suicide attempts

Moods can change quickly between mania and depression. Mood stabilizers may be needed if you have an episode of mania, hypomania, or depression that changes or suddenly gets worse. This is called an acute episode and some individuals need to take mood stabilizers long-term to prevent this from occurring. You may also experience mania or depression if you have a condition such as bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, depression, or personality disorder.

What Conditions Do Mood Stabilizers Treat?

Different stabilizers treat different types of mental health issues:

  • Lithium is typically offered as a long-term treatment for bipolar disorder. Also, it is sometimes used as a short-term treatment for mania.
  • Depakote, Epilim (valproate) is sometimes prescribed as a treatment for mania if the person hasn’t responded well to lithium. However, it should not be prescribed to someone who is pregnant or could become pregnant.
  • Tegretol (carbamazepine) is an anticonvulsant used to treat episodes of mania and mixed states.
  • Lamictal (lamotrigine) can provide the effects of an antidepressant and is licensed to treat severe depression in bipolar disorder.
  • Antipsychotic drugs such as Haldol (haloperidol), Seroquel (quetiapine), and Risperdal (risperidone) may be provided as mood stabilizers as part of the treatment of )bipolar disorder. Additionally, Saphris (asenapine) can be offered as a mood stabilizer to treat acute mania and schizophrenia-associated with bipolar disorder.

Can Mood Stabilizers Treat Anxiety?

  • Depakote (valproate) is an anticonvulsant that treats panic attacks as well as other psychiatric problems. It works better when added to a primary medication that is not totally effective alone. 
  • Neurontin (gabapentin) is another anticonvulsant that treats social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It also may work better when added to a primary drug that is not effective alone.
  • Lyrica (pregabalin), an anticonvulsant, is useful for treating GAD and also works better alongside a primary medication.
  • When an individual experiences co-occurring anxiety and bipolar disorder, anticonvulsants and antipsychotics can best treat these comorbidities (co-occurring conditions).

Are There Always Side Effects?

Not everyone will necessarily experience side effects from mood stabilizer drugs. Individuals who do may find that many of the side effects go away as their bodies get used to the medications with time. However, you should always report to your doctor any symptoms that you are experiencing that are bothering you or have gotten worse.

In general, the most common side effects to using mood stabilizers include:

  • Rashes or itchy skin
  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Stomach upset
  • Slurred speech
  • Blackouts (brief moments of not knowing where you are)
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of coordination

Contact your doctor immediately if you:

  • develop a sudden rash 
  • have trouble breathing 
  • feel a sudden pain in any part of your body (chest, muscles) 
  • sudden muscle stiffness 
  • any involuntary movements 
  • confusion 
  • difficulty staying away during the day 
  • problems with urinating or urinating too much

How To Reduce Risk or Severity of Side Effects

You can help reduce the risk or severity of side effects by:

  • Eating a balanced diet, adequate fluids, and daily activity, or exercise
  • Reporting any weight gain greater or equal to five percent (about 2 to 25 lbs.)
  • Limiting excess consumption of caffeinated products and sodium
  • Decreasing or quitting smoking

Occasionally, a change in the dose and schedule can help manage some side effects. Always follow up with your doctor because there may be other treatments that could be helpful.

Can Mood Stabilizers Change Your Personality?

Medications, including mood stabilizers, don’t change your personality. They stabilize your mood by treating your psychiatric condition. Your personality is different from the state of your mood. Personality is always the same but moods can change.

However, there is increasing evidence that attitudes and beliefs are important in predicting a patient’s adherence to medications in depressive and bipolar disorders. In a study of 256 patients, 40 to 80% had incorrect views on the effect of mood stabilizers, with 41.7% believing that mood stabilizers changed their personalities. 

Furthermore, patients not taking the medication for bipolar and depressive disorders average 40%. The conclusion was that there is a need to improve knowledge and attitudes toward diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, particularly in older patients, who had more incorrect views on the effect of mood stabilizers.

Find Treatment at Montare

If you suspect a mood disorder in yourself or a loved one, there is comprehensive mental health treatment available. The Montare Behavioral Health centers throughout Southern California specialize in treating depression, anxiety, trauma, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder.

Besides offering both inpatient and outpatient programs, we here at Montare Behavioral Health also offer specialized treatment programs for certain groups of people, such as, seniors, young adults, women, college students, etc. 

Our staff of professionals here at Montare help patients that walk-in by showing them that if they can believe, then they can achieve recovery successfully. Ultimately, our goal here at Montare is to help mentally ill individuals reach theirs. 

Don’t struggle through your life when you don’t have to. Contact us today and begin to live an authentic life, free of the hold that your mental illness has on you.