Managing Bipolar Disorder

From an episode of deep depression that keeps you bed-bound to a manic frenzy that triggers risky behavior, the mood swings of bipolar disorder can make you feel like your life is completely out of control. Episodes may be so severe that it becomes hard or impossible to hold a job, care for your family, or fulfill other responsibilities.

Although bipolar disorder is often a lifelong condition that requires treatment from a mental health professional, there are some practical and beneficial lifestyle changes you can make as well. These will help you manage symptoms, reduce the frequency and severity of mood episodes, and improve your overall quality of life.

Reduce Your Stress

Stress is a known trigger for bipolar mood episodes. Researchers have found a significant association between stressful life events and the symptoms of bipolar disorder [1]. Life events that can trigger a depressive or manic episode often involve a major loss, such as that of a loved one or a job. That being said, stress isn’t always linked to a sad incident. Any sudden or radical shift from your normal routine can be a catalyst, from getting married to transitioning into retirement. If you live with bipolar disorder, developing practical strategies for managing stress should be a priority. These may include:

  • Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxation strategies calm your mind while lowering your body’s physical reaction to stress. Deep breathing and meditation can be practiced at a regular time each day, such as first thing in the morning or just before going to bed. They can be particularly effective in those moments when you start to feel anxious, such as when you receive bad news from your boss. Most relaxation strategies are easy to learn with practice; many of them can often be used almost anywhere, from a quiet spot at home to inside your parked car. Guided imagery, which focuses your imagination on a positive outcome, and yoga, which combines stretching and controlled breathing, are also very effective for lowering stress levels.
  • Express your emotions creatively. Putting feelings into a tangible form, like writing, music, or art, can be a powerful way to reduce the negative emotions that trigger symptoms. Find a creative outlet, whether it’s writing poems or painting pottery, that speaks to you and make time to express yourself that way.
  • Add exercise to your routine. Regular exercise lowers the level of harmful stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, while it raises the level of good hormones, or endorphins, that act as natural mood regulators. A regular workout will also make the body healthier, which improves self-image and self-confidence.

Maintain Healthy Habits

Since the symptoms of bipolar disorder can vary greatly from day to day, it’s essential to give the mind a solid and consistent foundation through healthy habits.

  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. Substance use and abuse can make bipolar disorder symptoms worse. Alcohol is known to worsen depression symptoms, while cocaine, amphetamines, and Ecstasy will worsen manic episodes [2]. In addition, any substance has the potential to dangerously interact with medications you may be taking to treat bipolar disorder.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Consuming highly processed and / or sugar-laden foods cause fluctuations in blood sugar that may contribute to the onset of mood symptoms. Avoid these unhealthy foods in favor of lean protein, raw nuts, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Sleep well. Bipolar disorder often negatively impacts sleep, from bouts of insomnia to irregular wake-sleep cycles. Sleep deprivation, in turn, can increase anxiety as well as make it hard to function during the day. As a result, bipolar symptoms become even worse. In order to improve your sleep, eliminate caffeine late in the day, stick to a regular sleep schedule, maintain a quiet, dark bedroom, and use relaxation techniques – such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation – to ease into sleep.

Develop a Strong Support Network

A good support system, which often starts with family and friends, is vital to maintaining emotional well-being. Educate your loved ones about the symptoms and challenges of bipolar disorder. This will help them recognize the signs that suggest an episode of depression or mania may be developing. Since bipolar disorder has been linked to a higher suicide risk [3], it’s also important to educate friends and family about the warning signs of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Additionally, loved ones can provide support during bipolar episodes. For example, they can remind you to take necessary medication and make sure you keep treatment appointments.

Other ways to develop a support network include:

  • Finding a support group. Support groups for bipolar disorder are comprised of people who’ve walked the same path you’re traveling right now. They will be able to provide perspective from their own experiences as well as lend a supportive shoulder when needed. You may also find it therapeutic to share your own experiences and advice with others living with bipolar disorder.
  • Seeking spiritual support. Church groups and pastoral counseling provide support for those who have a religious faith. Resources based on a higher power can be a powerful part of managing a mental health disorder; however, in order to play an active, healthy role in your treatment, the group or counselor must be focused on providing love and guidance-not judgment.
  • Avoiding toxic relationships. Building a strong support system also involves knowing which people to avoid. For example, unhealthy relationships may encourage unhealthy behaviors, like substance abuse. It’s also a good idea to avoid close relationships with people who have negative attitudes toward mental health conditions.

Some individuals living with bipolar disorder might find it more challenging to build a strong support system. Start by speaking with your therapist or primary care physician. He or she can help get you connected with bipolar disorder resources in your community, such as support groups, social or family services, and community mental health centers. If you live in an area where resources are hard to find, consider an online mental health bulletin board or forum. An online group operated within a respectful, supportive, and caring environment can provide some of the guidance you need to manage this challenging journey.

Take Medication as Prescribed

Bipolar disorder is often treated with a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and family or group therapy. Sometimes, however, a therapist or physician determines that medication should be part of the treatment plan. There are several types of prescription drugs that may help alleviate symptoms. For example, mood stabilizers, like lithium or anticonvulsants, have successfully been used in bipolar disorder patients. A therapist or physician may also recommend some types of antipsychotic medications for patients with symptoms resistant to mood stabilizers.

Episodes of depression in bipolar disorder are sometimes treated with antidepressants. However, research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggests that these drugs are no more effective than a placebo [4]. In addition, this is a therapy that must be carefully monitored by a physician. Using an antidepressant on its own can produce a manic episode, so it’s often used in careful combination with an antipsychotic medication or mood stabilizer.

Always take medication exactly as directed by your therapist or physician. Never stop taking a bipolar disorder medication or adjust a dose without consulting the prescribing professional first.

You can learn to manage your bipolar disorder symptoms by using relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, and taking advantage of support groups. These tools may make it easier for you keep mood episodes at bay and significantly improve your mental health.

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