There is a paradox when it comes to bipolar mood episodes in terms of the treatment versus the prevention of episodes. On the one hand, the treatment of mood episodes can be rigorous, prolonged, and unsatisfying for people with bipolar and those around them. However, there are things people with bipolar can do to empower themselves in managing and, in some cases, staving off mood episodes.
Here is a focused outline on three self-guided components for living with bipolar: sleep, self-care, and support.
1. Train Yourself to Sleep
Your body responds to natural circadian rhythms. Based on a 24-hour cycle, a person’s physical and mental processes (e.g., mood) are affected by the changes of light and darkness. Setting the same wake and sleep schedule can dramatically improve your mood. Try to go to bed around the same time each night (even weekends) and get up around the same time in the morning. To do this, utilize these sleep hygiene tips.
Establish a routine to wind down in the evening. Pay attention to what time it is, so there is room to slowly navigate the dental routine, preparing for tomorrow’s workday, and the contact lens storage process. Avoid projects and other mentally taxing activities. Instead, read a novel, take a shower, or do some light stretching in the evening. Using alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs can disrupt nighttime habits, which consequently leads to increased stress and less capacity to manage it. Finish eating at least two to three hours before you go to bed, and abstain from caffeinated beverages in the evening. It takes approximately six hours for caffeine to leave the body, so a reasonable rule would be switching to decaf by 4 or 5 p.m.
When you are ready to hit the sack, use your bed for two things: sleep and sex. This means not binging on Netflix or writing a dissertation from the confines of the bed. Train the body to know that when you are getting into and lying in bed, it is time to fall asleep. You do not want to be alert in front of a screen or stimulated by a task you are doing while in bed. Consistent, alert activity in bed teaches us to be awake; when we do want to go to bed, the brain is confused as to whether dreamland is approaching or to perk up for Breaking Bad.
Similarly, do not submit to long periods of insomnia (no more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time). Although seemingly counterintuitive, this goes back to the idea of training the body. After 10 to 15 minutes of not being able to fall asleep, do not continue counting sheep; go to another room and get a glass of water, read a brief article or part of a book, and wait until you are a little sleepy before returning to bed. This reminds the body that the bed is for sleeping. Life can get in the way, but aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night.
2. Practice Regular Self-Care
Recent research shows that exercise is at least as effective for relieving depression as antidepressant medication. It also comes with a lot of less intrusive side effects (i.e., feeling relaxed, improved sleep and energy levels). Exercise regularly and make sure to finish a few hours before bedtime. Our bodies did not evolve to sit in office chairs for 12 hours per day, so getting your heart rate up or simply going for a long walk is a great stress release.
The more one understands about contributing factors to bipolar episodes, the more empowered he or she is to take preventative actions. You can develop a lifestyle management routine around your specific needs for mental health.
In addition, the mind, which regulates the flow of energy in our bodies, needs time to regenerate without stimulation. Develop a mindfulness practice or other type of spiritual process that you really value as necessary for mental well-being.
Prayer or meditation is best practiced in the morning after waking up. This establishes an intention for mindfully approaching daily life. Sit in silence while paying attention to your breathing for 20 to 30 minutes (start in smaller increments). Mindfulness group practices and classes are ever more ubiquitous and offer instruction to guide your work. Practicing these techniques within a community can be especially powerful. Contemplative activities are not rooted in gaining or self-improvement, which drive our identification with productivity. It is a commitment to sustaining a healthy lifestyle for the betterment of your relationships with others. Being curious and actively aware of the present will elicit awareness to subtle symptoms while decreasing impulsive behaviors.
A simple tracking sheet for mood and anxiety levels as well as self-care initiatives is a constructive way of monitoring behavioral and mental changes. Use a spreadsheet and leave it next to the bed or, if applicable, next to your daily supplements and/or medication box. Quickly note on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being depressed and 10 equaling manic symptoms) what your mood was for the previous day. You can do this for anxiety levels as well. Also, note whether you exercised or practiced other self-care (yoga, meditation, etc.) and any significant events (interpersonal issues, medication changes, etc.) that took place. Over time, you will have a noteworthy amount of data to compare the actions you have been taking with changes in your routines, moods, and levels of stress. Utilize the correlations you find and make predictions about what you need to do—or not do—in order to stay on top of emerging problems.
The more one understands about contributing factors to bipolar episodes, the more empowered he or she is to take preventative actions. You can develop a lifestyle management routine around your specific needs for mental health. This includes clues to early warning signs and possible factors you have identified that get you into psychological trouble.
3. Lean on Others for Support
The effects of bipolar rarely occur within a vacuum. When a person tries to manage it alone, it can consume the person. Like any stressor or bothersome life event, the symptoms of bipolar pull on relationships. This becomes a systems issue that requires the support of others. Wright et al. (2009) state that “family members and friends are generally good observers and may be able to recognize the subtle changes in behavior, emotions, and thought processes that signal the onset of mania.”
Having individuals in your life who are aware of your historical battles raises the likelihood that mood changes will be identified before complete manifestation. Talk to people who are close to you when you have medication or drug-use changes, feelings of depression, or energy changes, and allow space for them to discuss your routines or behaviors. Appreciate their information and knowledge while assuming they love and want the best for you. Transparency will alleviate the concerns of others and lessen the burden you feel for managing the prevention of mood episodes.
It is essential to develop close relationships with your health providers so they have a longitudinal vista into your mental health. If you wanted to see how your face aged over time, you could take a selfie on a daily or weekly basis and run the images through a video program. Similarly, regular meetings with a psychotherapist will foster insight, but also enable the psychotherapist to notice subtle changes in your mental health presentation. A psychotherapist typically takes a “snapshot” of you each week—or two—and, akin to a series of selfies, compares and contrasts the “images.” This clinical timeline is examined with you in order to make correlations and inferences about mood episodes as well as behavioral changes. A disciplined regimen of psychotherapy is necessary to understand our habitual processes. You become aware of the holes you continuously fall into despite seeing warning signs.
If you can regulate your sleep, monitor internal changes, and stay physically active—while also training your mind—you and your therapist might not have much to talk about.
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- Wright, J.H., Turkington, D., Kingdon, D.G. & Basco, M.R. (2009). Ch. 8 Mania. In: Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for Severe Mental Illness. An Illustrated Guide. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc. pp. 181-209.
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