The Link Between Bipolar Disorder and Highly Sensitive People (HSPs)

Photo by Iswanto Arif on Unsplash

Are you sensitive to temperature, textures, or noises? Are you easily frightened, especially when people come up behind you? Do you absorb the emotions of everyone else in the room and find it difficult to regulate your own in the face of all the chaos?

Then, like me, you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP).

In her 1997 book, The Highly Sensitive Person, psychologist Elaine Aron coined the term HSP to describe the 15-20% of people whose brains are markedly different from others. Highly sensitive people have something called “the sensory sensitivity processing trait,” which basically means their brains let in more information from their environment and they process things faster and more deeply, even subconsciously.

People with this trait often live their lives being bothered by experiences that others don’t even notice. Things like the pressure of sitting on a chair that’s not too hard for anyone else, shivering in a room said to be temperate for others, or deeply feeling someone else’s anger or distress.

And research has proven that being an HSP is a genetic trait, like eye color or hair. You feel things more deeply because your brain is wired differently.

Who else feels things more deeply because their brains are wired differently? Why, people with bipolar disorder, of course.

The Link Between HSPs and Bipolar Disorder

Not all HSPs have bipolar disorder and not all people with bipolar disorder are HSPs. Being highly sensitive is not a mental illness like bipolar disorder is, and cannot be treated by any current class of medication. Nor does being an HSP cause mental illness.

But if you are a highly sensitive person, overstimulation from your environment can trigger a bipolar mood episode.

Because their brains let in more information, both people with bipolar disorder and HSPs are extremely vulnerable to stress. The brains of both types of people–and especially if you are a HSP with bipolar disorder–have difficulties filtering out stimuli. Researchers call this “leaky sensory gating,” which means that HSPs and people with bipolar disorder can easily become overwhelmed by loud noises, temperature, or other people’s emotions.

This is a huge source of stress, which is a known trigger for depression, mania, and anxiety.

I should know. Being an empathic HSP with bipolar disorder, I frequently suck up the emotions of other people in the room and have difficulty separating my own feelings from everyone else’s.

For example, when my son is upset, I experience the distress with him in not only emotional symptoms, but physical. My chest constricts, my throat closes, and my shoulders and back with pain. And I feel an intense amount of pain and anxiety in my brain. I can’t concentrate on anything else, and I spiral down deep into negative thoughts.

And these symptoms last for hours. Once, my son and I got into a fight. He grew upset with me, and I was upset with him but also upset because he was upset. We talked out the problem, solved it, and ten minutes later, he had forgiven me and came back to show me a meme that he had laughed at.

But I was still upset–not because of my own anger, but because of his–for four hours afterwards. It wasn’t until I’d done some self-care that I was able to calm down and separate myself from his emotions.

Due to thinning gray matter in certain brain regions, people with bipolar disorder have difficulty regulating their emotions and inhibitions. An HSP with bipolar disorder who absorbs emotion and has difficulty separating other people’s feelings from mine own, I have found it very difficult to calm down after conflicts.

According to the International Bipolar Foundation, people with bipolar disorder also have more difficulty recovering from events and situations that cause stress. So as a person with bipolar disorder, is it any surprise that my fight with my son bothered me so much?

Experiencing other people’s emotions in this way has caused untold amounts of anxiety for me, and I have only just identified this as a trigger for my depressive and manic episodes. Realizing there was a link between bipolar disorder and highly sensitive people was a lightbulb moment.

Highly sensitive people tend to be called to helping professions, and I am no different. In August of 2022, I plan to earn a graduate degree in counseling with the aim of becoming a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC). I am hoping that my professors will be able to train me to manage my own emotions separate from other people’s.

And it’s not just others’ emotions that hurt me. As an HSP with bipolar disorder, I also find myself distressed by physical experiences that others have no problem with. For example, I feel freezing cold at temperatures like 65 degrees F (18 degrees C) and sweat at 75 degrees F (28 degrees C). My husband thinks I’m too sensitive–which, surprise! I am!

3 Tips to Help You Handle Being an HSP with Bipolar Disorder

Do you believe you are a HSP with bipolar disorder? Then read on for three tips on how to handle the stress of being one.

1. Take Responsibility

If you are an HSP with bipolar disorder, you may think that your emotions are out of control and the world around you must help you manage them.

Don’t think that. While your friends and family might be willing to accommodate your sensitivities if you communicate effectively with them, the only person who can manage your emotions is you.

You need to take responsibility for your own wellbeing. You make your own happiness. While you may feel more deeply than everyone else, you are also capable of managing those feelings through a regime of self-care and self-love. Think about including talk therapy and/or medication in your regime as well, as those are things you can do to take care of yourself that only you can do.

Owning my own feelings will be difficult, but I believe that with the help of my therapist and my practicing self-care, I will be able to finally separate myself from others and manage my brain. Identifying where the problems are is half the battle, so I’m well on my way!

I hope that this tip empowers you rather than daunts you. I don’t mean to say that your overstimulation is in any way your fault. But you have a quirk of the brain that other people just do not have, and you are capable of managing it.

2. Learn Your Triggers

Learning what bothers you or sends you into a self-destructive spiral will help you avoid or manage those triggers. Whether it’s a TV that’s on too loudly or negative self-talk, figure out what bothers you the most and try to fix the problem or distract yourself from it.

One of my triggers is loud noises. As a result, I constantly wear noise-cancelling headphones streaming music of my choice from my phone. Research shows that music lights up the reward centers of the brains of HSPs in extreme ways, so as long as I have my soothing music on, I can ride the high.

3. Communicate Your Needs

Speaking up about your needs is one of the best ways to cope with stress as an HSP. If you ask your friends and family to stop doing that one thing that irritates you, and they do, that’s one less thing to stress out your already-overwhelmed brain.

I plan to ask my son not to wear headphones when he’s watching YouTube videos. The distraction is so great that I can’t focus on anything else. I hope that he will be willing to accommodate me, and I believe that the request is reasonable enough that he will.

Conclusion

If you are an HSP with bipolar disorder, you must take care of yourself. I am only just learning how to deal with the stress of being one of the 20% of people in the world who are highly sensitive.

Start by taking responsibility for your own care. Be proactive about managing your triggers. And communicate your needs effectively.

The more you recognize what stresses you out and why and take steps to solve those problems, the healthier you will be.

I wish you well.

Related Posts:

10 Frugal Gifts for People Who Suffer from Anxiety

A racing heart. Panting breaths. Tunnel vision.

Chances are, you’ve felt anxiety in your life, and you know how terrible it is. Many of our loved ones manage anxious thoughts and feelings every day.

But what if you could give a friend or loved one something to help soothe them? If you have someone who in your life suffers from anxiety, this gift guide is for you.

Last holiday season, I wrote a frugal gift guide for people who suffer from depression.

A lot of the gifts on this list overlap with that one, but feel free to check the depression post out for even more ideas!

Preface

I’d like to preface this gift guide by saying that whomever you’re giving gifts to, keep in mind whether the recipient will actually be able to use the gift. People who suffer from depression are easily overwhelmed. You want to offer them a present which won’t overwhelm them, and you definitely don’t want to have expectations that they will use the gift.

Presents don’t have to be expensive, but if they’re thoughtful, your loved one will appreciate them. If you can, do some research to figure out what your loved one likes and is into. Look into their social media posts and find out what he or she is posting about. That can give you a clue as to what your friend or loved one enjoys.

If you are a frugal person buying for a frugal person, the best gifts you can give are practical ones. Most frugal people are content with what they have, and don’t want to fill their houses with stuff they won’t use. So the best gifts you can give, aside from time, are consumables, like food, journals, or gift certificates to places they like.

With that in mind, here are 10 frugal gifts for people who suffer from anxiety:

1. Weighted Blanket

Imagine a situation where you’re antsy and distracted. Then imagine a full-body embrace. Imagine deep pressure enfolding your arms, your legs, your chest. Now imagine a calm passing over your frantic mind.

This is the soothing feeling of a weighted blanket.

Weighted blankets have been used by occupational therapists the world over to help calm their patients, both children and adults alike. Glass beads are partitioned out in pockets and sewn together in sections.

When picking out a weighted blanket, there are two rules of thumb to follow: the chin-to-feet rule, where you use a blanket that covers your whole body, and the 10% rule, where you use a blanket that is 10% of your body weight.

Keep these rules in mind when picking out a weighted blanket for your loved one, and you’ll be golden.

2. Essential Oil Diffuser

Aromatherapy has long been a practice to soothe people. Scents like lavender and pine have calming effects on the mind.

This is due to the fact that lavender has been linked to the same neuron receptors as powerful anti-anxiety medications. Calming scents, and lavender in particular, trigger your brain to produce more feel-good chemicals.

So why not get your loved one an essential oil diffuser? They’ll love it.

3. Worry Rings

A “worry item” is something you can hold in your hands to fidget with. Fidgeting is a natural habit that helps ground people who suffer from anxiety, so a worry item can be very useful.

A worry ring or spinner ring helps take your loved one’s mind off whatever’s distressing them. They will wear their ring and think of you every time they fidget.

4. Mini Zen Garden

Raking sand and setting up stones doesn’t sound like it will relieve anxiety.

But a miniature zen garden is perfect for creating a small environment where your loved one will have complete control over the patterns of the sand. A zen garden can be a very soothing activity for your friend or loved one.

5. Therapy

Everyone needs someone to talk to.

Depending on how your loved one feels about therapy, signing them up with a few virtual sessions with a licensed therapist may be a wonderful gift. Your giftee may benefit immensely from only a few sessions and be encouraged to continue.

But take care when giving this gift.

You must know your recipient well and be able to preempt their reaction. And don’t let the sessions be a surprise. Talk with the person before giving them therapy as a gift, so they know what your intentions are.

If you give therapy to the right person, a few sessions could really help them!

For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here.

6. Adult Coloring Book

Coloring isn’t just for kids anymore.

This soothing activity is now for adults in the form of adult coloring books, which show complex patterns of animals, words, and mandalas, among other pictures.

Give your loved one a box of crayons and an adult coloring book, and watch their face light up.

7. Journal

Journaling has been proven to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Give your loved one the gift of a journal this holiday season. A nice Moleskin is a bit on the pricey side, but Moleskin makes excellent notebooks with leather-bound covers.

If you want to make the journal very special to your recipient, purchase it ahead of the gifting and write a positive affirmation or quote on the bottom of each page.

8. Yoga Mat

Downward facing dog. Mountain pose. Warrior I.

These are all yoga poses, from a practice which has been proven to help with stress and anxiety.

Why not give your loved one a yoga mat, so they can enjoy a few virtual sessions of yoga? If you want to go all out, spring for a work out DVD or some sessions with a professional yogi.

Like therapy, only give yoga sessions/mats if you know your recipient well and expect that they would enjoy working out.

9. Bath Salts

One of the best birthday gifts I ever received was a gift basket from my sister containing lotions, soaps, and a set of organic, deliciously-scented bath salts.

The salts were an especially soothing gift for me, as I was able to soak my troubles away in a tub that left my skin soft and my mind calmed with the scents.

Give your loved one the gift of scented bath salts this holiday season. Everyone needs to be clean.

10. Mug of Hot Chocolate to Share

And finally, the last gift on this list but certainly not the least, is a mug of hot chocolate to share.

There are some pretty cute mugs out there, some of which are funny and others of which can be sweet. Purchase a mug and some instant, powdered hot chocolate–or DIY some of your own with a recipe you can find online.

And then offer to share some hot chocolate with your loved one. What your loved one needs most is the gift of your time.

Even during a global pandemic, you can still set aside some time to virtually share a cup of hot cocoa with your loved one, right? You may have to schedule the visit and you can’t exactly hug each other, but your loved one will appreciate seeing your smiling face and catching up with you.

Conclusion

Shopping for gifts for a person who suffers from anxiety isn’t difficult.

You simply have to think about what you think would soothe your friend or loved one the most. Be it a yoga or therapy session, a long soak in the tub, or time spent sharing a mug of hot chocolate, do some thinking about what gift your loved one will enjoy.

I wish you well in your journey.

What gifts are on your list this year?

Related Links:

National PTSD Awareness Day: What is PTSD?

What is PTSD? Can you recover from this kind of mental injury? Find out in this post by the Bipolar Parent!

Shell shock. Combat fatigue. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These are all names for the same psychiatric condition, as the terminology has evolved over time. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common psychiatric condition developed in people who have seen or experienced a traumatic event.

These events can be directly experienced, such as combat or war, rape, or a natural disaster. But indirect exposure, such as the violent death of a close family member, can also trigger PTSD to develop.

PTSD can occur in people of all races, ages, nations, or cultures. Approximately 1 in 11 people will develop PTSD in their lifetimes. Women are 2 times as likely as men to suffer from PTSD.

June 27th is National PTSD Awareness Day in the US. Started in 2010 by Congress, the awareness day supports mental health organizations which target PTSD in educating communities and families about PTSD symptoms. Later, in 2014, Congress declared June National PTSD Awareness Month.

These organizations also encourage people who suffer from PTSD to get treatment. The US Department of Defense is majorly involved, as June has many awareness days celebrating the military.

Symptoms of PTSD affect people in four different ways. Each symptom differs in severity. People with PTSD can suffer:

  1. Arousal and reactive symptoms, which may include irritability; reckless and self-destructive decisions; extreme jumpiness at loud noises or accidental touches; inability to concentrate or sleep; and angry outbursts.
  2. Intense, distressing intrusive thoughts and worries related to the traumatic event long after it has ended; repeated, involuntary memories; disturbing dreams; and flashbacks which are so evocative that people feel like they are reliving the traumatic experience.
  3. Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, which may include avoiding people and situations that create intrusive thoughts or disturbing memories. People may avoid talking about the event and how it makes them feel.
  4. Distorted negative beliefs about themselves or others including things like, “I am an awful person,” or “I can’t trust anyone.” These negative thoughts and feelings can include anger, guilt, fear, shame, anhedonia (inability to enjoy usually enjoyable activities), or detachment or estrangement from others.

People who experience a traumatic event can suffer from these symptoms for days after the event, but to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must persist for months or even years. Symptoms usually develop within three months of the event, but some may appear much later.

Final Thoughts

Posttraumatic stress disorder can be a devastating psychiatric condition, impacting every facet of people’s lives. While PTSD is a mental injury and not a mental illness, it interferes with the ability to function in daily life similar to conditions like bipolar disorder.

People who suffer from PTSD often also deal with other conditions, such as depression, substance abuse, and memory problems.

If you or a loved one suffer from PTSD, there is hope. Recovery programs abound nationwide, and processing your feelings with a therapist can help. There are even medications which can treat PTSD, such as clonidine for nightmares.

(For a post on getting a psychiatric evaluation, click here. For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here.)

Don’t give up hope. PTSD can be overcome with time and proper therapeutic treatments. You can heal from your traumatic event.

I wish you well on your journey.

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What Does Mother’s Day Mean for Your Mental Health?

What does a complicated holiday like Mother’s Day mean for your mental health? Find out on CassandraStout.com!

What Does Mother's Day Mean for Your Mental Health? - CassandraStout.com

Mother’s Day.

For some of us, it is a day to celebrate the women who raised us–with flowers, chocolate, or homemade crafts. For others, it is a day of intense guilt and shame, reminding them of an abusive or neglectful parent. For those whose mothers left them or passed away, the day is a poignant reminder of what they do not have.

But what does Mother’s Day mean for your mental health?

In addition to featuring Mother’s Day, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. During May, mental health organizations strive to combat stigma about mental health conditions and educate communities and families about coping tools for mental illnesses. One thing that professionals want people to be aware of is the effect holidays, especially holidays centered around togetherness and emotions, can affect different people mentally.

Your Mother’s Effect on Your Mental Health

Your mother shaped your mental health, first as a child, and then as an adult. When you are little, your mother taught you how to handle stress, mostly by example, but also, hopefully by actively teaching you. Your mother also modeled how to manage relationships, including friendships, romance, and parenting, teaching you what to do and what not to. The types of behaviors learned, and whether they are healthy or not, can depend entirely on your relationship with your mother.

Even those whose mothers abandoned them as children or passed away taught them something by their absence.

And people with mothers who suffer from mental illness, especially if it is untreated, have another entire layer–and sometimes multiple layers–of complexity to their parental relationships.

What if You’re a Mother?

For those of us who are mothers ourselves, we’re walking a tightrope of societal expectations. Many of us suffer from postnatal depression, and a few of us have more severe cases of postpartum psychosis–including delusions, irritability, and hallucinations–all while facing a lack of resources and support from the community at large.

Facing down Mother’s Day as a mother can dredge up complicated feelings, ranging from happiness at the relationship you have with your children, to exhaustion from facing another day, bowing under the pressure of being a mother.

How to Handle Such a Complicated Holiday

All of this makes Mother’s Day a complicated, and at times, triggering day on the calendar. We may feel joy celebrating our mothers, but we may also feel pressure to do so in spite of our feelings. And we also can feel intense guilt or shame at our perceived failings as mothers and as daughters.

So how can you handle Mother’s Day, which is so fraught with emotion?

First, practice self-care. A lot of women think self-care is limited to having bubble baths and painting their nails. But that’s just not true.

Self-care is taking responsibility for your physical and mental well-being. That’s it.

Try to get enough sleep during the week, eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water, exercise, and spend some time outside and with other people, as much as social distancing would allow. Tap into your social network and ask for support during a time when you might be feeling vulnerable.

Secondly, give yourself space to experience your feelings. Mother’s Day is a complicated holiday, but you yourself are a complicated human being, capable of feeling all manner of emotions at any given time. Letting yourself experience your feasr or sorrows privately can help you get through the public times more easily.

Write down your impressions of Mother’s Day. If you are angry with your mother, write a letter expressing yourself. (Then burn it. This is only for you.) Keep a journal just for you about your complex feelings surrounding motherhood.

If you have a wonderful relationship with your mother and want to celebrate her, then by all means do so, and also celebrate your friendship! If you have a neglectful or abusive parent, then do what you can to take care of yourself in this time–if that means skipping the holiday, then don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for doing so.

If you have a daughter this Mother’s Day, try to be patient with her during this complicated holiday. She is likely struggling with some of the same issues you have with your own mother. Give her the grace you would want your own mother–or your daughter yourself–to give you.

Final Thoughts

Mothers shape our mental health. They teach us how to take care of ourselves, and how to prioritize our own well-being. Or, as is so often the case, how not to do that.

Our mothers taught us so many things, good and bad, and Mother’s Day is a way to acknowledge our mothers’ effects on us–without drowning. Motherhood is a complex and difficult challenge, and as long as we try our best, we are good parents.

You can handle this complicated holiday. You are stronger than we know.

My mother–and my own motherhood–taught me that.

Related:

What Does Mother's Day Mean for Your Mental Health? - CassandraStout.com

7 Frugal, Proven Ways to Destress While Stuck at Home Due to Coronavirus

7 Frugal, Proven Ways to Destress - CassandraStout.com

Stress. Everyone has it.

Stress is a normal physiological response to something that upsets your equilibrium, like a threat or a challenge. It’s your body’s ability to protect you.

Sometimes stress can be good for you (it’s called eustress), motivating you to meet deadlines at work and exercise (which is itself another form of good stress). Good stress is short-lived and infrequent, and leaves you better off than you were before you encountered the stressful time.

But stress can sometimes be bad for you, especially if you’re not managing it well. Bad stress lasts a long time, happens frequently, and leaves you worse off. This kind of stress collects and collects, piling on to your brain.

Since 1992, April has been Stress Awareness Month. Sponsored by The Health Resource Network (HRN), a non-profit health education organization, Stress Awareness Month encourages people to educate themselves about the dangers of bad stress, learn coping skills, and recognize prevalent stress myths.

During self-quarantining due to the coronavirus pandemic, everyone is feeling significant amounts of stress, mostly bad. We don’t know when the need to self-quarantine will end, and we don’t know if we will catch the coronavirus ourselves. Many of our friends and family may already be infected.

We’re also worried about our financial futures. We may have to work at home. Millions of Americans have been laid off. Our kids’ schools have closed, and no one knows when they will open–or even if they’ll open for the rest of the academic year.

All this uncertainty adds up to a stressful time for everyone.

Celebrate Stress Awareness Month with these 7 frugal, proven ways to destress while you’re stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

1. Breathe Deep

Taking breaths doesn’t sound like it could help as much as it does. Inhaling expands your chest and shoulders, releasing tension. Plus, fresh oxygen improves your brain’s ability to remember things, alleviates stress, and keeps cells healthy.

Try this exercise, given to me by my therapist over eight years ago:

    1. Close your eyes, if you feel safe enough to do so.
    2. Inhale deeply through your nose, preferably into your abdomen, while counting to 3.
    3. Hold for 3-5 seconds.
    4. Exhale, releasing the air from your mouth over a period of at least 3 seconds.

This rarely fails to relax me.

2. Exercise

Exercise can help you manage your stress in a low-cost, high-impact way. Studies show that exercise can improve your mood. A simple, 20-minute jog around your neighborhood, which releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins, can improve your mood for a whopping twelve hours.

You don’t have anything to lose by working out. Try to get some exercise today, preferably outdoors in the sunlight. Anything that gets your heart rate up—jogging, boxing, yoga—is an excellent way to manage your stress levels.

3. Eat a Small, Healthy Snack

When people are stressed, they sometimes turn to food for comfort. Like exercise, food is one easy way to force the brain to release feel-good chemicals. And nothing is more stressful to the brain than starving it.

But you don’t have to make stress eating a bad thing. Even eating a small, healthy snack is a scientifically-backed way to destress.

Try half an avocado, or a stick of string cheese, or a handful of almonds. You want a snack that is full of protein or heart-healthy fats.

The way you eat your snack is also important. Take your food somewhere distraction-free. Sit down with your feet shoulder-width apart. Breathe deeply (tip #1), and focus on your food. Feel the texture of your food on your tongue.

Try to divorce judgment from eating. This is a snack which is good for you and will help you destress.

4. Get Enough Quality Sleep

Sleep is crucial for you to function on even a basic level, but even more so if you have mental illness like bipolar disorder. Getting enough sleep may help prevent manic episodes and helps regulate depressive episodes.

If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain will hold onto your stress. Quality, restful sleep starts in the bedroom. Make sure you have a dark, quiet environment to catch some Zs.

For a post on how to handle insomnia and other sleep disturbances while you have bipolar disorder, click here.

5. Detox from Your Smartphone

A study done by British researchers showed a clear link between rising stress levels and compulsively checking emails and social media on a smartphone.

Unplug from your electronic devices, and marvel at how much your stress dissipates after only an hour.

6. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Appreciating what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t has been proven to reduce stress, and improve physical and mental well-being.

Writing an entry in a gratitude journal is a low-cost way to feel better about the world and your place in it.

7. Do a Full-Body Check In

If you’re feeling stressed, your body will show signs of the negative feelings. Your shoulders can be tense, your stomach may churn, and your lower back might be sore.

But how you feel physically can also add to stress. It’s a vicious cycle: you feel stressed, which affects your body, which in turn raises your stress level, and so on.

Nip the cycle in the bud. Check in with your body.

Sit or lie down somewhere peaceful. Starting with your toes, mentally examine each body part. Are you sore anywhere? Tense? Hungry? Thirsty? How’s your stomach feeling? How are your shoulders? Do you have enough oxygen in your system (tip #1)?

Examine your needs, and then go solve them. If you’re hungry, eat a small, healthy snack (tip #3). If you’re tired, take a nap (tip #4). Check in with your body, identify issues you might be facing, and practice self-care.

Final Thoughts

Destressing is a form of self-care. Taking the time to relax yourself will have untold benefits for your physical body and mental state. Destressing helps your mood, outlook, and ability to handle future stressful situations.

Celebrate Stress Awareness Month. Destress with one of these practical, scientifically-backed tips today.

I wish you well in your journey.

Related:

7 Frugal, Proven Ways to Destress - CassandraStout.com

COVID-19: 7 Ways to Combat Anxiety about the Coronavirus

Learn how to manage anxiety due to the novel coronavirus outbreak in this post by the Bipolar Parent! 7 practical tips!

7 ways to combat anxiety about the coronavirus - CassandraStout.com

You have to maintain distance in social situations. You have to work from home. Your kids’ schools are canceled. Churches are canceling services. All the major stores are out of toilet paper, masks, and hand sanitizer.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has declared the outbreak a global pandemic. The U.S. government’s response has been less than inspiring. Nursing homes are showing major rates of infection.

The frothing panic about coronavirus hasn’t quite reached its zenith, but everyone’s life is already drastically affected.

Some people, already anxiety-prone, are facing a great deal of terror about impending infections or death.

Here are some practical tips on how to manage your anxiety levels during the coronavirus outbreak.

1. Don’t Inflate the Risk

There is still so much unknown about the coronavirus. Because of that, a pandemic like this is more frightening to people because it’s unfamiliar, unlike the flu, which infects millions more and kills 1% of them.

As of this writing, the novel coronavirus has infected 115,000 people globally, and killed about 5,800. The W.H.O. reports a death rate of 3.4%.

While these sound like scary numbers, they are not as scary as the SARS outbreak, which has a mortality rate of 9.6%.

The infection rate of 115,000 people is insignificant compared to the 7 billion people on the planet. Even if millions of people are infected, the likelihood of you catching the infection is fairly low, especially if you wash your hands properly.

Also, at least 75,000 people of those infected have recovered; 80% of those infected will only suffer mild symptoms similar to a cold.

2. Recognize What You Can Control, and Let Go of What You Can’t

If you’re having trouble with feeling like everything is out of control in your life, try this exercise. Take a piece of paper, and draw two circles on it. Label one, “What I Can Control,” and the other, “What I Can’t Control.”

Write down your worries, and categorize them into one of the two circles. Here are some hints to get you started:

What I can control: My actions and reactions, how much news I consume and from what sources, whether I wash my hands properly and avoid touching my face, how much my children understand about the outbreak…

What I can’t control: Infection rates and deaths among the elderly, whether the coronavirus spreads in my neighborhood, the news cycle, other people’s actions…

After you write down what you can and can’t control, try to let go of what you can’t.

3. Take Care of Yourself

Taking precautions like often washing your hands properly (sing the ABC song twice, or count to 20) and avoiding touching your face is only sensible in the face of a global pandemic.

There are other ways to take care of yourself. A healthy immune system is one of the best ways to fight the virus once you’re infected. So make sure you get enough sleep and >eat a healthy diet to support your body’s natural defenses.

If you are over the age of 60 or are immuno-compromised, then stay home as much as possible. Ask your younger family and friends to grocery shop for you, and utilize Amazon deliveries for household supplies such as hand sanitizer.

4. Go on a Media Fast

If listening to coronavirus news is making you depressed and panicky, consider going on a media fast. Block news apps from giving you notifications on your phone, and avoid reading news websites.

Limit your consumption of the daily media circus, and try to avoid thinking about the coronavirus and the chances of infection. You don’t want to stick your head in the sand, but you do want to go about your daily life with as little interruption as possible.

5. Journal, Journal, Journal

If you just can’t conquer your worries, write them down in a journal, online or off. Writing your fears down may help you recognize that they’re (mostly) about things you can’t control, so you can let them go (tip #2).

Above all, don’t ignore or try to stuff your anxiety. Give yourself space to be worried, and try to put into words exactly what makes you nervous. Don’t ignore the physical symptoms of stress, which can include a racing heart and shortness of breath.

Express your feelings in writing and allow yourself to be concerned about a concerning situation.

6. Be Prepared for an Outbreak

If you don’t yet have an outbreak in your community, prepare yourself for one. Ask your boss about your work-at-home options. Figure out your childcare options before your kids’ schools are closed. Tap into your support network to see what your friends’ plans are, and see if you can still check in with them over the phone if not in person.

Preparing as much as humanly possible for an outbreak in your community will help you see what you can control and let go of what you can’t (tip #2).

7. Seek Professional Help

If your anxiety is paralyzing you in your daily life, it might be time to pull in the big guns. Seek professional help. Some therapists will meet in online sessions with you, so you should be able to avoid getting sick or getting them sick.

Lean on your treatment team. They’re here to help you. A good therapist can help you cope with rational and irrational fears.

For a post on getting a psychiatric evaluation, click here. For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here.

Final Thoughts

These practical tips may help you curtail your fears about the novel coronavirus. Don’t inflate the risk of infection, let go of what you can’t control, take care of yourself, go on a media fast, keep a journal of your worries, prepare for an outbreak, and seek professional help if your worries keep you from enjoying day-to-day life.

Above all, give yourself space to worry. A global pandemic is a genuinely scary situation. You are allowed to be concerned. Just don’t let it destroy your ability to interact with your family or take pleasure in the little things.

I wish you well in your journey.

Related:

7 ways to combat ancxiety about the coronavirus - CassandraStout.com

The Bipolar Parent’s Saturday Morning Mental Health Check In: Ice Edition

I cover my week being cooped up in the house, and ask you about yours!

Hello, hello! Welcome to The Bipolar Parent’s Saturday Morning Mental Health Check in: Ice Edition!

How are you? Is it snowing where you are? Have you been stuck in the house? How cold is the weather? What about your self-care routine–have you been sticking to it? Let me know in the comments; I genuinely want to know!

The Bipolar Parent's Saturday Morning Check in: Ice Edition - CassandraStout.com

My Week

My week has been utterly depressing.

I am used to a certain routine of preschool on Mondays and Wednesdays (where I meet with a friend from my writing group to write and clean the house, respectively), and toddler group on Tuesdays, which I attend with my kiddo as a co-op preschool.

Then the snowpocalypse hit. There’s still ice on the roads in our neighborhood. As I’m a anxious driver who has crashed in icy conditions before, I am very reluctant to drive.

School has been canceled for both my kids pretty much all week and we’ve been cooped up in the house. We all are suffering from cabin fever.

We normally go to a park or an indoor playground every day, even after toddler group on Tuesdays. I am ill-tempered due to nature’s inconsideration of my need for routine. My toddler has watched all sorts of random Netflix shows this week.

But it’s not all bad; we could be dealing with a power outage, like we did last year.

Luckily we live within walking distance of a grocery store, so my husband has been hoofing it there to pick up milk and bread. I am thankful that he was able to work from home.

So that’s been my week. How’s yours been? Have you, too, been cooped up in the house? Let me know in the comments!

Related:

The Bipolar Parent's Saturday Morning Mental Health Check in: Ice Edition - CassandraStout.com

Can a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet Improve Depression?

tomatoes.jpg
A picture of several ripe tomatoes. Credit to flickr.com user Frédérique Voisin-Demery
. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

When speaking of dieting advice, Michael Pollen put it best: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But not all diets are about dress size. The challenge in eating healthy is even more of a challenge when it comes to managing your mental health. I’ve already looked at How to Follow a Mediterranean Diet to Help Bipolar Depression. But what about different diets?

The whole-foods, plant-based diet (WFPBD) has gained traction in nutritional psychiatry circles in the past few years. Proponents claim that the diet can reduce the risk of or even reverse chronic diseases. But can vegetarian, vegan, or whole-foods, plant-based diets help depression?

That depends on what studies you look at. There have been a few studies that imply vegan diets can help you manage depression. But there are some other studies that imply the opposite. Few people have studied this subject, so finding answers is a lot of piecing together and guessing. The studies that have been done suffer from small sample sizes.

An oft-cited German study which examined diet and mental health in a group of about 4100 subjects said that vegetarians were 15% more likely to suffer from depression. But the study also said that these people tended to start their vegetarian diets after already developing depression. The conclusion? Plant-based diets did not cause depression, but people who were depressed were more likely to choose a plant-based diet. This was the biggest study on the subject to my knowledge.

These results have been replicated in other studies. Another UK study found that 350 vegans/vegetarians (out of a subset of 9700 men) were more likely to be depressed than those eating meat. But the researchers caution readers that correlation is not causation; these men may have been depressed before adopting their diets.

Interestingly, research shows that plant-based diets may actually have a protective effect on mood. A small study of Seventh-day Adventists found that a vegetarian diet was associated with better moods. A second study, also small, found that moods improved when people stopped eating meat. New moms in Austria and women in Iran who ate vegetarian diets also enjoyed better moods.

Research also points to an alarming trend in meat eaters: women with a high-inflammatory diet, including red meats and processed foods, were 41% more likely to suffer from depression. Diets high in sugar have been linked to depression as well. And a recent study from the American Journal of Health Promotion found that vegan diets improved the levels of anxiety and depression in 36 participants.

This sounds scary, but plant-based diets aren’t without their problems as well. There are some good reasons that people eating a plant-based diet might be prone to depression. If you want to follow this diet, here are some limitations to be aware of: Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and folate are all linked to depression, and vegans and vegetarians might eat fewer of these supplements than omnivores. A lack of iron and zinc, two minerals most easily found in meat, is also associated with depression. Additionally, vegetarians may eat more omega-6 fatty acids, which increase inflammation and are correlated with depression. People eating a plant-based diet may also consume higher levels of pesticides, provided they’re not eating organic foods.

If you eat a vegetarian diet and are suffering from depression, talk to your doctor about supplementing your diet. B12 specifically is only found in meat. According to a recent study, depression was reduced up to 50% in people who started supplementing with B6, B12, and folic acid.

Of course, it is irresponsible to say that people are depressed because of what they eat. Depression is usually a chemical imbalance in the body, especially bipolar depression, and cannot be blamed solely on what we consume. It is also important to note that while diet can improve mental health, treating depression sometimes requires medication or therapy. Seeking adequate treatment for mental health problems carries an unfortunate stigma, and it shouldn’t. There is no shame in trying to live a healthy life, where you can be the best you can be. If you feel like diet and exercise is not enough to treat your depression, then talk to your doctor.

I wish you well.

Related:

 

How to Spot Depression in Children, Even Preschoolers

Trigger Warning: Brief discussion of suicidal ideation.

Preschool depression is often overlooked, because the symptoms are difficult to spot or may be explained away by hopeful parents and teachers. Depression in adults is widely known, but can preschoolers suffer clinical depression? Science says they can.

Scientists began studying depression in preschoolers 20 years ago, and the research continues today. According to the conclusion of a new study led by Dr. Joan Luby of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, preschoolers suffer depression. Luby’s team examined 306 children ranging from 3 to 6 years old. This study demonstrated that 23% of the 3-year-olds endured depressive symptoms every day for two consecutive weeks. As the age of the child increased, the rate of major depressive disorder diagnoses also increased. The 4-year-olds suffered depressive symptoms at a rate of 36%, while the 5-year-olds showed a rate of 41%. The children who had suffered extremely stressful or traumatic events in their lives also had a higher incidence of depression than the controls.

Preschoolers generally can’t describe their emotional states. They’re still learning what emotions are and they lack the ability to vocalize them. This is the difficulty in diagnosing depression in preschoolers, and why you may need help spotting it. In order to allow the study participants to express how they perceive themselves and get a sense of what young children were feeling, Dr. Luby’s team asked a series of questions using puppets. How the children responded gave the researchers a clue about how the kids were feeling.

Further complicating the picture is the prevalence of other conditions along with depression, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In Dr. Luby’s study, about 40% of the study participants also dealt with ADHD, which tends to drown out symptoms of depression, because the symptoms are similar. This can even persist later in life. Children who suffer depression are more than four times as likely to suffer an anxiety disorder later in life than kids who don’t suffer depressive symptoms.

preschooler
A preschool-aged boy in blue hoodie sprawling on a parent’s lap. Credit to flickr.com user Quinn Dombrowski. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

But what does depression look like in a 3-to-6-year-old?How can you, as a parent, spot it? Well, depression in children looks a lot like depression in adults. For example, anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure from normally enjoyable activities, can show up in adults as a lack of enjoyment in things like golfing or writing. Preschoolers with anhedonia find little to no joy in their toys. Both adults and children with depression are restless and irritable. Depressed kids whine a lot, and don’t want to play.

When they do play, children may decide that their stuffed animals decided to “die” today and decide to bury them. Anytime you see a preschooler demonstrate methods of suicide or death with a stuffed animal without mimicking an episode of your life, such as a death in the family, your antennae need to come up. That could indicate suicidal thoughts.

But the most common symptom of depression in children is deep sadness. Not someone who’s sad for a day, but all the time, no matter who he or see is with or what he or she is doing. Sadness in the face of goals that have been thwarted is normal. But depressed children have difficulties resolving the sadness to the point where the misery affects their ability to function regularly. If your child appears to be sad to the point of inability to enjoy anything or regulate their other emotions, then get a recommendation from your pediatrician for a child psychologist or a behavioral therapist.

Other notable symptoms of childhood depression are an exaggerated sense of guilt, shame, and insecurity. Depressed preschoolers generally feel that if they do a naughty thing or disobey, that means they are inherently bad people.

Here’s a breakdown of the symptoms of depression in children of any age, including preschoolers:

  • Deep and persistent sadness
  • Irritability or anger
  • Difficulty sleeping or focusing
  • Refusing to go to school and getting into trouble
  • Change in eating habits
  • Crying spells
  • Withdrawing from friends and toys
  • Fatigue
  • Anhedonia – inability to derive pleasure from enjoyable activities, like playing with toys
  • Whining
  • Low self-esteem and insecurity
  • Shame and guilt
  • Timidity

Preschoolers may be especially vulnerable to depression’s consequences. Young children are sensitive to emotions, but lack the ability to process strong feelings. Early negative experiences–including separation from a caregiver, abuse, and neglect–affect physical health, not just mental. Multiple studies have linked childhood depression to later depression in adulthood.

This is why properly diagnosing and treating these children early is so vital. One established intervention for treating childhood depression is called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, or PCIT. Originally developed in the 1970s to treat violent or aggressive behaviors in preschoolers, PCIT is a program where, under the supervision of a trained therapist, caregivers are taught to encourage their children to manage their emotions and stress. The program typically lasts from 10 to 16 weeks.

The Bottom Line

Dr. Luby’s research is met with resistance. Laypeople typically think the idea of preschoolers suffering depression ridiculous, and even some doctors and scientists don’t believe children are cognitively advanced enough to suffer from depression. Preschool depression remains a controversial topic, which makes it harder to diagnose in your child.

But depression in children 6 years and older has been well established by decades of data. Is it really so hard to think that preschoolers might suffer depression as well? Dr. Luby and her team have been looking at the data for 20 years, and have concluded that preschoolers can suffer depression, just like older children and adults.

Admitting that your child is depressed may make you feel like you’re a failure. After all, if you can’t protect your children from depression, who can? But clinical depression is chemical. This is not your fault. You may have been told that depression doesn’t exist in preschoolers, or that you’re overreacting. You may be called a helicopter or hovering parent. But trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. Don’t be afraid to go against stigma for your child’s benefit.

Up to 84,000 of America’s 6 million preschoolers may be clinically depressed. If your child is one of them, you are not alone. There is no shame to depression. The condition is not your child’s fault, just as in adults. No parent likes to see her child suffer, and getting help for depressed children is vital to their well-being.

If your child suffers depressive symptoms, especially anhedonia, ask your pediatrician for a recommendation for a behavioral therapist or child psychologist. Typically, the earlier the intervention, the more successful the results.

Good luck.

Related:

 

How Mental Health Affects Personal Hygiene

Hygiene is extremely important for health and morale-related reasons, but mental health conditions can negatively affect self-care. Keeping up a routine of frequent bathing can be difficult for many people suffering from bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, schizophrenia, and dementia. Teeth and hair brushing are burdensome for the mentally ill; indeed, getting that done on a daily basis is hard for me as well.

During my stay in the mental hospital, patients had to request that they be let into the shower, which was locked. The nurses required us to be dressed by eight a.m., but didn’t require oral care or hair brushing. As a result, my normally-straight hair became ridiculously tangled, to the point that I described it as a mass of Brillo pads piled atop my head.

toothbrushing
Credit to flickr.com user Niklas Gustavsson. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Self-neglect is one of the major symptoms of depression, and can easily be tied into mania as well. Body odor, soiled clothes, and poor oral hygiene are all signs of something going very wrong in a person’s life. Loss of motivation, a lack of self-worth, and social isolation all contribute to poor hygiene.

One way to help remind yourself to wash is to have soap and other supplies readily stocked. Fresh towels, even if it’s difficult to do laundry, are essential to cleaning oneself. People who care about you can help keep you on task as well by asking if you’ve had a shower lately. And you don’t need to bathe everyday. Showering every day strips the oils from your skin and hair, drying them out. So just get a bath in when you can.

Hygiene can be hard to maintain, especially if you’re in the throes of a mood episode. But it’s crucial to managing moods. Best of luck engaging in self-care!