10 Self-Care Ideas for People Suffering from Bipolar Disorder

Photo by Loverna Journey on Unsplash

Note from the Editor: Please welcome the Bipolar Parent back from my hiatus! I will be posting weekly personal, informative pieces on how to manage your bipolar disorder on Friday mornings. I hope that these posts will help you deal with depressive or manic episodes, and that you’ll be able to stabilize soon. 

I wish you well!

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Self-care. It seems self-explanatory; after all, the term indicates caring for the self. But why is self-care so hard to accomplish, especially for people who suffer from bipolar disorder?

The answer is easy. When we’re manic or hypomanic, we’re usually too busy to settle down and care for ourselves. If we’re depressed, caring for ourselves is the last thing we want to do (mostly because we don’t want to do anything at all).

That must change. Caring for ourselves is putting an oxygen mask on. Self-care is crucial for our daily functioning. We must take self-care seriously to make the most of our lives.

September is Self-Care Awareness Month. There’s no better time than to start giving yourself a sweet, sweet dose of self-care.

Some people believe the self-care is limited to taking bubble baths and painting their toenails. But there are so many more ways to take care of yourself. Read on for 10 self-care ideas for people suffering from bipolar disorder.

Self-care Ideas for When You’re Manic

When you’re manic, life is go go go. In my experience, I barely slow down enough to take a breath. Here are my recommendations for self-care when you’re manic:

1. Pause for two minutes and take deep breaths

I know stopping whatever you’re focused on when you’re manic is incredibly difficult and the last thing you want to do, but hear me out. Mania spends energy you don’t actually have. If you’re constantly on the go, you’re going to wear yourself out. Pausing for two minutes and taking deep breaths (in through the nose, hold for eight seconds, and exhale through the mouth) will help your brain reset.

I like to do the box breathing method. First, find a safe place. Then, breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and release for four seconds. This almost always works to calm me down.

2. Take a bath

When I’m suffering from a bipolar mood episode, my hygiene goes out the window. This is especially true during depressive episodes, but also can happen during mania. I highly recommend making a conscious effort to take a bath or shower during that time. Bubbles are optional. Being clean may help you feel better, and if you slow down enough to take a bath during mania, the hot water may relax you a little.

I like to use Epsom salts in my baths. Even if I can’t take a bath, a hot shower, even if it’s short, helps slow my brain down enough to make me realize I’m manic and need to chill out.

3. Sleep

During manic episodes, sleep is your best friend. Aside from medication, sleep is the number one way you can reset your brain back to a non-altered state. Please, try to get some good sleep. Dim the lights, stop using screens two hours before bed, do some deep breathing exercises (see tip #1), and by all means, rest.

I guard my sleep with the fierceness of Cerberus. Whether I’m manic, depressed, or stable, my sleep hygiene is the most important aspect of my day. I sleep in a cold, dark room with two thin blankets, having showered and brushed my teeth right before bed. I have no music or white noise, and I make sure I sleep at least 9-10 hours a night.

When I’m suffering from insomnia, I pray fiercely, and commit my sleep to God. If you’re not religious and you’re up for all hours of the night, you can try meditation and see if it helps. Definitely try the box breathing method.

4. Limit yourself to one project.

My mania manifests as crafting binges. I dive into embroidery or painting projects, and neglect everything around me and even myself until I produce something. I’m always rushing, so these projects never turn out well. I also bounce between projects. I highly recommend sticking to one project, so you’re not leaving half-finished projects lying around.

5. Exercise.

Since you have plenty of energy to burn during mania, burn it. Put on a workout video. Run some laps. Climb your stairs up and down. Anything to get your heart rate up and tire you out.

I can’t run due to knee issues, so when I’m manic and full of energy, I put on music and dance with my kids or talk walks around the park and neighborhood with them. I try to incorporate my kids into my manic phases as much as possible, and ask for their patience with me as I struggle to regain control of myself.

Self-care Ideas for When You’re Depressed

Depression is a beast. You feel awful and don’t have the energy to do anything.  So what can you do? Here are some self-care ideas for when you’re depressed:

1. Go outside

I know that when you’re depressed, you’d rather stick your hand in a box of tarantulas than get out of bed. Trust me, I’ve been there. But staying in bed all day doesn’t help. In fact, that can worsen or prolong feelings of intense sadness. If you go outside and breathe some fresh air, then your mood may lift even if only slightly.

I try to take my four-year-old to a park every single morning except on Sundays, when we have church services. Forcing myself to get outside on a daily basis is sometimes the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but standing outside in the sun helps me re-center and realize that my depression won’t last forever.

2. Clean the closest surface to you, like a nightstand

Clutter deepens and prolongs feelings of depression. If you can clean the closest surface to your bed, like a nightstand, then you’ll have both a feeling of accomplishment and a clear surface to look at.

I have a problem with my brain: every time I think I’m not doing enough, my brain screams at me that I am useless and unworthy of love. I am fixated on being useful, even though logically I know I have value as a person beyond what I produce.

And when I’m depressed, the screaming intensifies as I don’t tend to get anything done, nor do I want to get anything done. So rather than sinking fully into the pit of despair and allowing my brain to figuratively beat me over the head, I try to cross off at least three items on my (small) to-do list and call that good. I recognize that I can’t get as much done when I’m depressed as when I’m stable, but I do accomplish something everyday. That helps me a lot, and it could help you, too.

3. Drink water

Hydration is so important to a healthy body and mind. You’re not at your best when you’re dehydrated. Focus on drinking a gallon of water over the course of a day. Even if you do nothing else but drink, you’ll win the day.

I drink about 144 ounces of water a day. I bring water bottles with me whenever I’m out, and I have a 32-ounce cup at home that I continuously guzzle and refill at the tap all day long when I’m there.

When I’m even slightly dehydrated, I can feel it: I suffer headaches and a dry, scratchy throat, and my mood takes a nosedive. One of my symptoms of depression is a lack of self-care, and that starts with not drinking water, which only worsens my condition. So I would highly recommend putting drinking water as one of the three items on your to-do list. Hydration is crucial for your mental health. 

4. Socialize with an actual person

Call a supportive friend. Check in with your family. Even go out to the store and say hello to the cashier. When we’re depressed, we often isolate ourselves, which makes depression worse. Don’t do that.

When my brain is screaming at me that I’m worthless, I like tapping my online friends. I can sign on and leave them a message and say, “My brain is being mean to me today, and here’s why,” and they’ll respond to me whenever they’re available. Because they’ve been depressed themselves, they’ll listen and acknowledge my pain, and maybe even offer some suggestions about how to conquer my specific challenges that I’ve mentioned.

Relationships are so important to mental health. Don’t isolate yourself. Get out there and put yourself among people, and hopefully you’ll find someone who can support you. 

Your friends want to help you. They’re there to listen. Lean on them.

5. Say “no” to some things

Feeling overwhelmed is common when suffering from depression. If you can, say no to some things filling your schedule. Freeing up enough space to let yourself heal is one of the best things you can do for depression.

As I’ve touched on in previous points, when I’m depressed, I absolutely cannot do as much as I can when I’m stable (which is, admittedly, a lot). So when I’m suffering a depressive episode, I assess my capabilities and cut way, way back on everything I need to do.

I try to give myself three main things on my to-do list, one of which is drinking enough water. Other things that I’ve put on there may be brushing my teeth, showering, eating an easy meal, or socializing with a person. If I’ve done all three things, I win the day.

Final Thoughts

Self-care for people who suffer from bipolar disorder doesn’t have to be difficult. Keep in mind your various struggles when you’re depressed and manic, and tailor your self-care to those episodes. Showers, sleep, and indulging in things that make you happy are crucial to your well-being.

I believe you can conquer these mood episodes. Good luck.

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Author: Cassandra Stout

Freelance writer Cassandra Stout blogs weekly at the award-winning Bipolar Parent, a comprehensive resource for parents with mental illnesses. She also blogs monthly at the International Bipolar Foundation website (IPBF.org). Her work has been published in the anthology, How the Light Gets In. Cassandra holds degrees from the University of Arizona in Creative Writing and Journalism. She has been a judge for the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association literary contest for nine years, where her memoir, Committed, recently placed as a finalist. She balances her literary work with raising her children, feeding her cat, and managing her bipolar disorder.