This post appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, here.
I used to look at the new year, especially the month of January, with trepidation.
When I was but a young college student dating my then-boyfriend–and now husband of several years–I had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar I because I hadn’t suffered a major manic episode, but I still suffered crushing depressive episodes.
I didn’t notice until several years later that these depressive episodes followed a pattern: I would be up, up, up, cheerful, social, and insanely productive, totally killing it on my tests and in my friend group.
Then I would crash and burn, and spend several weeks if not months not showering, self-isolating, and unwilling to get out of bed for any reason.
This pattern almost always manifested itself around the holidays. Until I started dating my husband, I didn’t celebrate Christmas because my parents didn’t for religious reasons. So when I was encouraged to celebrate the holiday season with my husband’s family in college, I went all out for years.
One of my expressions of frugality is crafting. I bought a ridiculous amount of crafting supplies, exhausting my budget and preventing me from eating food for weeks, and hand-crafted multiple intricate individual gifts for everyone in my husband’s family in a hypomanic frenzy.
Usually starting in November, I painted, cross-stitched, sewed, sculpted, decorated, baked, and crafted Christmas presents that were ultimately unappreciated–and rightfully so. Because I was rushing to complete these gifts and make more, more, more–because more is better, after all, my sick brain told me–their quality was shoddy.
I still recall my father-in-law on Christmas day trying on a too-small felt hat I’d simply hot glued together at midnight the night before without measuring. The hat fell apart shortly afterwards and was relegated to the trash, like most of the poorly-constructed presents.
My manic brain would not allow me to slow down and complete the work right rather than fast, and I had never been taught–or taught myself–to pay attention to detail, a skill I am still learning years later now that I’m healthier.
And after the insanity of the holidays, I always, always crashed.
Coupled with the weak winter sunlight and the hypomanic episodes I’d enjoy from November 1st until December 25th, January was always a miserable month for me. I suffered a depressive episode every year like clockwork for about 15 years, until I learned how to manage my bipolar disorder–and manage it well.
Now, for the first time in over a decade, I look back on this new year with contentment and excitement. I decided to purchase Christmas gifts for my family and give myself ample time to craft some for a few of my friends. I started in October, planned out my purchases and cross-stitching carefully, and made sure not to overwhelm myself with the holiday spirit that is so easy to get caught up in.
I now monitor my sleep, medication levels, and sunlight exposure throughout the year. I have a SAD light for the winter and take vitamin D3, which I need in the cloudy Pacific Northwest, as well as iron pills and a multivitamin. I also take my psychiatric medication faithfully and check in with my therapist when there are problems I cannot solve on my own. I communicate about my moods with my husband and children and socialize with my friends on a weekly if not daily basis.
By taking measures to protect my mental health this past year, I have earned a happy January. After decades of out-of-control moods bending me to their will, I have finally learned how to work with my bipolar disorder diagnosis rather than against it.
For the first time ever, I am happy, healthy, and well-balanced in January. Rather than facing the new year with fear and trembling, I am happy to say that I welcome what challenges I will face–and eventually conquer–including going back to graduate school for my counseling degree.
Trigger Warning: Mentions of intrusive thoughts that tell me to self-harm.
A dear relative came to me via Facebook messenger, telling me they’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and asking for my advice. They told me that they were scared of their diagnosis and they hoped I’d be able to understand.
Here is what I said to them, over an hours-long text conversation:
Oh, [name], I totally understand being scared of a diagnosis, especially one for a lifelong condition that can be dangerous under some circumstances. The best thing you can do to reduce your fear is to educate yourself on what this diagnosis really means.
What a bipolar diagnosis really means is different for everyone. But what it means to me is that I have an extra layer of work on top of my normal affairs to manage my moods.
I have to make sure I take my meds on time twice a day, monitor my moods so that I’m sure that the meds are working, monitor my actions to make sure they’re not wildly off base and within the range of societal norms, get enough sleep (this is especially important to avoid manic episodes), monitor my spending, avoid alcohol, and so on and so forth.
It sounds like a lot, and it is, but it’s just part and parcel with living with a mental illness. If I don’t put the work in, I become miserable and a danger to myself and others. Thankfully, the work gets easier as you get used to it.
I also used to think a bipolar diagnosis made me fragile. And to a certain extent, that’s true. There’s certain things I can’t do that other people can, like live without medication and drink and stay up all night.
But fragile is the wrong impression; if you go through life thinking you’re fragile, you’ll damage your confidence and make yourself believe you’re made of glass.
So while fragile is the wrong word, try delicate instead. With bipolar disorder, you have a delicate constitutional makeup. You need to be careful with yourself and treat yourself right. If you don’t, you won’t thrive or even survive well, and that’s no way to live a life.
I highly recommend educating yourself on what you have to do to treat yourself right. That’s the first step, and will help resolve your fears. Once you’re armed with knowledge about what the diagnosis really means to you and what you need to do to manage it, then you’ll be able to tackle it head on.
Do you have meds? Do they work? I would highly recommend finding a therapist that you feel comfortable with who can work with you through your diagnosis. A psychiatrist doesn’t have to be warm and friendly to know their stuff, but a therapist should be someone you feel you can talk to and basically share your struggles, challenges, and triumphs.
If you’re not on meds yet, go back to the psychiatrist and ask for some, especially a mood stabilizer to avoid endangering yourself or others with manic episodes.
Finding a med cocktail that actually works will take some time and a lot of wading through side effects, so don’t give up! You can find something that works for you, and even if your specific diagnosis is medication resistant, there are other things you can try like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), but that’s mostly good for depressive episodes.
Still, there are therapies out there and you can treat this disease with a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and self-care.
But you do have to respect that this is a disease. It’s a brain disease, sure, but it’s a real and valid threat to your happiness and the happiness of those around you.
Give the disorder the respect it deserves and don’t underestimate how quickly things can fall apart. It’s a balancing act, but the more scaffolding you have in place, the less difficult it will be to balance your life.
What I mean by scaffolding is medication, a treatment team, therapy, and good habits like getting enough sleep every night. Once you have these things in place, you will find it easier to keep your mood on an even keel.
As someone who has been managing my bipolar disorder for years, I’ve realized that my brain lies to me. It does not have my best interests at heart.
I have intrusive thoughts that tell me to hurt myself, and I have to acknowledge that I had the thought and let it go. I often say to myself, “well, that was a thought! How interesting!”
And in this way I can look at those sorts of thoughts with a neutral mindset, as if I’m some sort of outside observer just looking at my brain and all its idiosyncrasies.
I know it’s hard to believe right now, but trust me: you are a human being with inherent value. Do you think your friends deserve pain? Treat yourself as a friend. That’s what you deserve, not this brain that lies to you.
You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. But I am confident you can manage this illness and I’ll be here for you, too.
Like most people facing a bipolar diagnosis, my relative was scared and stressed. They didn’t know where to turn to start educating themselves about their diagnosis.
If you can find someone in your life who has successfully managed their bipolar disorder for years, like I have, even better.
If you’re facing a bipolar disorder diagnosis, there is hope for you to have a successful, well-adjusted life. Make no mistake, it’ll take work, and sometimes there will be situations outside your control, but that work gets easier with time.
My relative asked me to check in on them periodically and offer them advice, which I plan to do. I’ve already set a repeating event in my calendar with a notification on my phone to remind me to do so.
Like I said, I’ll be here for them–and I’m here for you, too.
I can hear you now: Sticking to a routine is one of the most difficult things ever with bipolar disorder. Why do I have to do it?
I’ll tell you why: because your brain thrives on structure, and following a daily routine can help prevent and treat bipolar mood episodes, according to Ellen Frank, PhD, professor of psychiatry and psychology and director of the Depression and Manic Depression Prevention Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
In a study of interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPRST) and its effectiveness of managing mood episodes, Frank found that patients with bipolar disorder who followed a routine survived much longer without an episode than those who didn’t follow a rhythm, and that IPSRT was extremely effective at preventing mania and depression.
My therapist told me years ago that consistency would be the best gift I could give my children, and I despaired. How could I, being an inconsistent person based on my mental illness and habits developed in a chaotic childhood, provide them with a life with reliable “rocks,” or big activities that we did daily?
Finding–and sticking to–a pattern has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And as we’ve added to our family, I have changed the pattern. But I’ve noticed a stark difference in my own happiness and the happiness of my children when I create order in my life rather than submit myself and my family to chaos.
The importance of creating a daily routine–and following it!–can’t be stressed enough. But how do you create–and more importantly, stick to–a routine?
Read on for some tips and tricks based on my own personal experience.
Tip #1: Start Small
When I’m manic, I tend to want to organize my life. When I’m in this state, I suffer from the compulsion to make to-do lists and plan out my schedule and the schedules of my family.
So my first tip is probably obvious: don’t start planning your routine when manic. My next tip is probably less so: start small.
What I mean by that is don’t add a bunch of items to your to-do list all at once and expect to follow them daily. You’re setting yourself up for failure that way.
Start with the “rocks,” or big activities: meals, sleep, and work hours. Which leads into tip two.
Tip #2: Fix Your Sleep Hygiene
I could go on and on about how crucial sleep is for stabilizing your mental health. (In fact, I have, here and here.) Sleep hygiene is one of the easiest and most effective ways you can get yourself on an even keel and reduce the severity of mood episodes, even and especially preventing them.
Sleep is a rock in your day, so try to schedule sleep times. Schedule wake times. And try to stick to those. If you have sleep problems, talk to your doctor. You need enough sleep.
How much is enough depends on each individual person. Some adults need 7-8 hours, others need more. But if you’re not getting enough sleep, that’s a fast track to mania.
I go to sleep between 9-10pm every night. Approximately twenty minutes before bed, I shut off my phone and take a shower or bath, depending on my mood and how much time I have. I wind down at night by lying in bed by either praying or planning out my next fanfiction.
Waking up used to be much more difficult for me, but now that I’ve lowered the dose of one of my meds, I’ve been finding myself waking up with much more energy. But I still roll over and go back to sleep after turning off my alarm.
I’m telling you this tip–fix your sleep hygiene–but I’m also telling myself. I need to start waking up at 7am consistently like I used to and address the likely lingering slight depression.
Starting tomorrow, I will be waking up with my alarm at 7am and forcing myself out of bed rather than shutting it off and sleeping in. Wish me luck!
Tip #2: Schedule Meal Times
In addition to sleep, one of the quickest ways we can stabilize our moods is to keep our blood sugar levels stable. Being an Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), I know I myself am extremely susceptible to being hangry.
If you can, try to stick to regular meal times. Eating 3-4 small meals a day will help you keep an even mood, but not only that, it’ll help you lose weight or maintain a healthy one.
My meal routine is simple. I take my meds right before breakfast at 9:15am, eat a breakfast of a single egg and a glass of milk with sugar-free salted caramel syrup, and then take my daughter to the park until 12pm, at which point I eat lunch (usually last night’s leftovers). I eat a small snack at 3:30pm. Dinner, which I usually start making at 4:30opm, is between 5:30-6pm, depending on the recipe. I also drink about 144oz of water throughout the day.
This schedule works very well for me and my family, and helps keep me sane. Try scheduling your meals for regular times. You won’t regret it.
Tip #3: Schedule Your Work Hours
For most of us, work takes up most of our day. If you can schedule your own hours, do so. Whether you work in an office, attend school, or work from home, you need to set a start and end time.
According to Dr. Frank’s research, having a set work schedule will help you feel better. If you can, tap your colleagues, teachers, and family to help you meet your obligations with enough time for you to complete the day’s work at a set end time.
I’m a writer and a stay-at-home parent attending online psychology classes for my graduate degree, so my work day starts at 8am, when I wake up and make my daughter breakfast.
After that, we go to the park until 12pm, when we return home to eat lunch. My mother-in-law, who lives with us, watches my daughter and reads her stories and practices her sight words and hand writing from 1-4pm, during which I study. Then I make dinner at 4:30pm, eat at 5:30pm, and have time for relaxation with the rest of the family after the dinner dishes are done at 6:30pm.
At 8pm, the bedtime routine begins, including a bath for my daughter. She’s in bed by 9pm, and then I take my own shower and go to bed shortly afterwards on most nights.
My schedule is not very intense, and it leaves room for flexibility. But if you’re a homemaker, it’s especially important for you to schedule a set end to your workday. Without a specific time to stop and relax, you can easily work yourself to the bone.
As I said in the last tip, I have penciled in time to relax with my family from 6:30pm to 8pm. I also have a “night off” from the bedtime routine on Mondays, which I usually spend writing short stories or cross-stitching, hobbies I enjoy that chill me out.
Make time each day to do something you enjoy. Self-care is incredibly important in fighting mood episodes, especially depression.
There’s any number of things you can do for self-care. You could take a walk, indulge in a cup of tea or coffee, or do something creative, like painting or writing.
For a list of 100 Doable Ideas for Self-care When You’re Suffering from Depression, click here.
Tip #5: Forgive Yourself
If something throws you off your routine–and something always will eventually–don’t panic. Try to be flexible enough to roll with the punches.
Accept what has happened and then follow your routine as best as you’re able. Forgive yourself if you can’t quite make it one day. There’s always tomorrow.
When something interrupts my routine, I get crabby. That’s what I mean about feeling an impact to my happiness when my routine is altered, especially without my permission. But even with my permission, I struggle to remain happy with the change.
For example, Monday nights are my night off, and Tuesday is the night my husband and mother-in-law go shopping. This Monday, my mother-in-law suggested that they hit the store that night rather than Tuesday and give me a night off on Thursday, a change I agreed to because it would be better for my husband.
By the end of the night, while doing the unexpected bedtime routine with my daughter, I was cranky. She got on my nerves more than I care to admit.
But I bathed her and put her to bed, tucking her in and singing “Rock-A-Bye Baby” twice, as is her routine. Then, exhausted, I went directly to bed.
I made sure to give myself grace for being annoyed and reminded myself that this change was temporary and I agreed to it. The next day, Tuesday, my mother-in-law took over the bedtime routine and gave me that night off instead of Thursday, which I was pleased with.
Sometimes routines don’t work out, and that’s okay. As long as you forgive yourself and get right back into it as soon as you can, you’ll be alright.
Make adjustments as needed, like getting a hotel room if you’re not going to get home on time to sleep. A hotel room costs less than a hospitalization if your mood destabilizes.
If you suffer from bipolar disorder, routines are crucial to your success in treating your mental illness. They prevent and treat mood episodes, keeping you stable and happy.
Think of following one for not only yourself, but also your family and those around you.
To follow a routine, start small, fix your sleep hygiene, set meal times, schedule a start and end times to the work day using your colleagues, and forgive yourself if the routine doesn’t go as planned.
You can follow a routine. You can be consistent, despite your mental illness making that difficult. Schedule your rocks and stick to those commitments. You will benefit from doing so.
So much baking, so much fuss, so much shopping to nonplus. Cute rhymes aside, surviving the holidays with bipolar disorder is no joke. But dealing with a mental illness doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the season.
Bipolar disorder complicates the holidays for several reasons. December is a month where we’re expected to spend a ton of money, socialize in potentially uncomfortable situations (and do this a lot), and party until all hours of the night, sometimes with alcohol involved.
But with proper planning and vigilance, you can enjoy the holiday season.
You are not immune to destabilizing. If you drink and you lose control, you may as well be sending all your hard work to avoid a relapse down the drain.
This is easier said than done, especially for alcoholics or former alcoholics, of which there are a startling high number that includes people with bipolar disorder. But try to find a substitute that you can rely on and stock up at home so you can bring it to parties. Soda works for some people, or tea, or seltzer water.
I know this is hard, and I might lose readers by saying that you have to limit drinks as my first tip. But this is so important because I want you to be happy and healthy, and if you’re looking to survive the holidays with bipolar disorder, know your limits.
Tip #2: Try Not to Obsess Over Gifts
Years ago, before I had my bipolar disorder under control, I would go all out for the holidays. Growing up, my family never celebrated Christmas, so when I married into a family with holiday traditions, I was ecstatic.
One of my manifestations of my hypomania is crafting. I used to sew plushies, paint gifts, make hats, cross-stitch video game characters and QR codes for the people I affectionately call nerds (including myself!), and basically stress myself out, further exacerbating my mania.
I’d spend hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours on these gifts, and because I was manic and in a hurry to make gifts for everyone, I would rush these projects and they never turned out well. Because of the shoddy quality, these gifts were the least appreciated and almost never taken home from our communal meeting place.
I later realized that I was crafting gifts for me, and not because they would be thoughtful presents for those around me. This was a painful realization to come to, but it had to be done in order for me to stop inflicting these thoughtless gifts on others.
Now I buy my gifts online and have them sent to people’s homes already wrapped. It’s less personal, but sometimes a less personal touch is good. And the gifts are much more appreciated than my rushed, botched projects I made in a manic frenzy.
Don’t be like me. I’m not saying don’t handmake any gifts. You can absolutely choose to make a few, select gifts, be it either via crafting or baking or wherever your skills lie. But do limit yourself to projects you can do well and have the time to do, and give them to people who will appreciate them.
You also have my permission to give gifts that you think aren’t perfect for the recipient, even though you don’t need me saying so. (Sometimes that helps me, when my friends give me “permission” to do self-care.) Putting thought into each gift is a good thing, but try not to obsess too much over which ones you give.
Protect your mental health. Don’t go manic just because you want every gift to be perfect.
Tip #3: Do Practice Self-Care
Self-care isn’t limited to bubble baths and painting your nails, though those can be important ways to destress if they work for you.
Self-care is taking responsibility for your physical and mental health. That’s it. It’s easier said than done, because of a lot of us (myself included) believe we don’t deserve to take time to fill our tanks.
But if we don’t, and we’re running on empty, that’s a surefire recipe for a depressive crash in the new year. I know I’ve suffered many Januarys feeling terrible because I overextended myself during the holidays and didn’t protect myself.
So a brief run-down of self-care during the holidays:
Prioritize sleep. If you do any of these tips, prioritize sleep. Sleep is crucial for maintaining your stable mood; there’s no better way to send a person with bipolar disorder spinning off into mania than not getting enough sleep. I know very well the awfulness that follows from not getting enough sleep, mostly from staying up working on rushed crafting projects.
Don’t overextend yourself socially. You do not have to attend every party, especially not huge ones where you may be uncomfortable. I know the extroverts among us (myself included!) love being surrounded by people. We get our energy from talking and enjoying the presence of others. But sometimes, we get too much energy, and end up manic. I often have. The same goes for introverts; don’t wear yourself out with people and have nothing left to give to yourself. Be selective about your time.
If you have bipolar disorder, you can still enjoy the holiday season. I know this list seems like a whole lot of “don’t do this, don’t do that.”
But think of it this way: you deserve to be healthy. You deserve to protect yourself and your hard-won stability. You don’t deserve to suffer from a manic spiral or a pit of depression.
Treat yourself in the way you deserve to be treated. Don’t drink to excess (or at all, if you can manage), try not to obsess over gifts, and practice self-care. With these tools in your belt, you can survive and even thrive this holiday season.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder thirteen years ago, I had no idea what what that meant.
I have a chronic mental illness? What does that mean for the rest of my life? I thought.
I wished that I had someone to guide me, someone who had survived and thrived with their own bipolar disorder and could help me understand what this truly meant for me and my family.
I have been stable–and happy!–for about seven years, so I am glad to share my experience with others in the hopes of helping them. Here are the 5 things I wish someone would have told me when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
1. It Gets Better
This is the most important item on the list. Facing down an alarming diagnosis and a years-long recovery from my postpartum psychotic break, I desperately needed to hear “it gets better.”
After the break, I spent years nearly-dying in the black pit that is depression. I could not care for my infant son, leaving dirty diapers on the living room floor for weeks because I couldn’t summon the wherewithal to pick them up. Even when he aged into preschool, I was still fighting to survive.
If I had someone tell me that I would eventually come out whole and healed on the other side, I don’t know if I would have believed them at the time, but I would have looked back with gratitude.
Telling someone in the midst of a bad situation “it gets better” can help them, especially when you yourself have lived through a similar situation. If you can expound upon how you survived your own challenges, even better.
2. You May have Mixed Feelings About Your Diagnosis
When I was given the label of “bipolar disorder,” I was by turns both devastated and elated:
Devastated because I had no idea what being bipolar would mean for me and my family. Elated because I finally had a label that made sense.
The label explained so much about my behaviors until that point. I wanted to tell everyone I’d ever met that I had bipolar disorder–an impulse in the midst of a manic episode that my husband gently cautioned me against.
I found myself vacillating between utter despair at the fact that I had a mental illness that would never go away and happiness at the fact that I could start working towards recovery with a targeted approach.
You may feel mixed feelings about your diagnosis. Your feelings, whatever they are, are valid, and they don’t change your inherent value as a person. Feel whatever emotions you feel, accept them, and move on.
3. Your Meds are Crucial for Recovery
When I was first diagnosed, I had a difficult time remembering to take my medication. But once my psychiatrist prescribed me the right ones, I found that when I took my pills–and took them on time–I stabilized rather quickly.
Bipolar disorder is no joke. Many people, especially those of us with Bipolar I, cannot manage their condition without psychiatric care. I know I can’t; without my anti-psychotic and anti-depressant, I would be in a very dark place.
I wouldn’t wish my depression on anyone. Without my medication, I would not have recovered. Thankfully, with a combination of medication that works for me and talk therapy, I have been stable for years.
Take your meds. They’re there to help you. Taking medication doesn’t make you weak; quite the opposite. It’s the first step towards stabilization; the first step towards healing. No one looks down on a diabetic for taking insulin, and bipolar meds are the same: life-saving.
4. Be Honest with Your Family About Your Diagnosis
Being honest with your family about your diagnosis is probably one of the hardest parts of being diagnosed. You now have a label that carries with it a certain amount of stigma.
Like me, your family will be confused about what a chronic mental illness means for them. Hopefully they’ll want to support you in this new journey of yours.
If I hadn’t been honest with my husband, my biggest supporter, he would not have been able to respond in an appropriate manner to my bipolar mood episodes. Whether it was hypomania, mania, or depression, my episodes are dangerous to my family, as I can’t concentrate on anything but my moods and whims.
So communicating honestly with him, though extremely difficult at the beginning, became easier and easier as time went on.
Tell your family about your diagnosis. If you don’t let them in on what challenges you’re facing, they will never understand what your diagnosis means for you and for them.
5. Try to Find Cheerleaders
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder thirteen years ago, my husband and I had just graduated college and moved 1500 miles away from our friends and family. I’d also given birth to our first child six days prior.
I had no new friends in the area we lived, and I felt alone facing my diagnosis. Making friends proved extremely difficult, but I wouldn’t trade the supporters I have now, who cheer me on through my various challenges, for the world. They have helped me handle my struggles with grace and gladness.
Finding a cheerleader or two is so important when you’re facing a diagnosis, especially if they’ve been in your shoes and can understand what you’re going through.
If you have existing friends willing to help you, that’s excellent! But if you feel truly alone, immerse yourself in groups of potentially-supportive people.
You can find these people online through Discord (a chatting service) servers centered around a common interest, like a show. Or you can attend support groups online or in-person, or ask your doctor what they recommend.
Relationship building takes a ton of effort and you may be overwhelmed, especially if you’re depressed. But your friends will be so worth it.
Dealing with a diagnosis like bipolar disorder may feel daunting. You may feel utterly overwhelmed, especially if you’re newly-diagnosed.
I’m here to offer suggestions and reassure you that yes, it gets better. Your possibly mixed feelings about your diagnosis are valid. Take your meds, be honest with your family, and try to find cheerleaders.
Your recovery and stabilization from bipolar disorder may take years. And that’s okay. Keep fighting the good fight. You’ve got this.
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?
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.
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.
When tiny people suck up all of your available time, energy, and mental headspace or when your teenager butts heads with you and you’re just exhausted afterwards, then that is the time for self-care.
Every parent should know the importance of self-care, defined as, “the practice of taking action to improve one’s health.” Without filling your own tanks, there’s no way you can be a present parent and fill the tanks of your children. If you allow your kids to drain your batteries day after day, you’ll end up collapsing. You’ll be burnt out, unable to meet even the most basic needs of your children—or yourself.
I know that you might not think that you have time for self-care. But you need to make time, if not for yourself, then for the sake of your children. I know that when I don’t prioritize taking care of myself, I end up snapping at my kids and damaging their emotional health. I don’t want to be that parent, so I put my own oxygen on mask first, to use the metaphor.
Here are a few self-care ideas specifically tailored to parents with busy lives.
1. Go on a Nature Walk
Spending time in nature has been proven to reduce anxiety and improve your well-being. Take a walk around a forest, go to a park and step barefoot on the grass, or visit the coast, if you can. The best part is that you can bring your kids with you. They’ll benefit from a walk around greenery as much as you, which will mean they’ll be a lot calmer in the afternoons if you go in the morning. I know an outing requires a bit of advanced planning, but you can handle this.
I like taking to my 4-year-old daughter to the park as often as I can, both so she can run around with other kids and I can soak up some sunshine. We go in the mornings and return home before lunch. Spending time in nature is easier when your kids are in the sweet spot between infant (when going out is difficult) and pre-teen (when they’re not interested). But even if your kids aren’t 4-6, when they like parks the best, try to go out anyways. Your kids deserve a happier parent and walking around in nature is one of the best ways to buoy your mood.
2. Play Your Favorite Song
One way to improve your mental state almost immediately is to play your favorite song. If you have a bumpin’ playlist, even better. Crank up the speakers and have a dance party with your kids. They’ll enjoy wiggling around with you and you’ll all get some exercise in, which means naptime may be easier.
My husband gifted me a pair of Bluetooth headphones, on which I listen to music all day long. I keep one ear uncovered so I can play pretend games with my preschooler and discuss more advanced topics with my preteen son. I listen to Pandora radio, a streaming service, on my phone, and I have stations I’ve curated to match my mood and activities—fast, electronica music for cleaning, classic rock for everyday listening, and soft acoustic guitar when I’m anxious and need to calm down.
3. Engage Your Sense of Smell
Your sense of smell is tied to mood; if you smell rotten eggs or cat urine, that can ruin your day, whereas smelling sandalwood, the favored scent of your beloved aunt, can help improve your outlook. To engage your sense of smell, light a scented candle (after the kids have gone to bed), rub some perfume on your wrists, or open a bottle of vanilla extract and take a whiff. Smelling something good can help you recenter yourself during or after a busy day of child-rearing.
I love smells. My sniffer is super, so I love inhaling good scents as much as I can. When my son bakes bread, I love spending time in the kitchen with him just to get a blast of the aroma of yeasty goodness. I absolutely crack open a vanilla bottle on occasion.
4. Grab Some ZZZs
If you can, try to get some extra sleep. Studies have shown that the benefits of sleep are legion. Every parent understands the importance of sleep, especially parents of newborns and small children. Researchers recommend sleeping at least seven hours a night so your body and brain have time to reset themselves.
If your kids still take naps, nap with them. And even though it’s tempting to burn the midnight oil to get some alone time, try to snuggle under the covers before 11pm, as according to studies sleep before 12am is the most restorative. If you have a trusted family friend, ask them to watch your children for you for a couple of hours so you can grab some ZZZs.
I was actually falling asleep at the breakfast table today, and my husband happened to be home to take care of the kids. He told me to go take a nap, which I did, and I felt loads better afterwards.
As a woman with bipolar disorder, sleep hygiene is key to my mental health. Without sleep, I trip into mania, after which there’s always a crash, and that’s no good for anyone, especially me. I guard my sleep with the fierceness of Cerberus. If I’m too busy to sleep before 12am one night, I absolutely try to crash at 9-10pm the next few days. And when my daughter did nap, I slept with her.
Good sleep is essential.
5. Practice Good Hygiene
Most parents understand the appeal of a hot shower. (Those who don’t, you don’t know what you’re missing!) There’s just something relaxing about standing under the spray and letting your cares wash down the drain along with any grime you’ve gathered during a hard day of childcare. But what if you don’t have time to take a shower? What if your “shift” isn’t over for a few hours?
Well, the answer, my friend, is sponge baths. Rinse a washcloth in the sink and wipe down your face and arms. Scrub your kiddos’ face while you’re at it, and you’ll both feel better. If you find yourself with an abundance of time, brush your teeth. A clean mouth will help you feel like you can take on the world.
In the heat of the summer, nothing feels better than a bit of cool water on my face. I love dragging a cold, wet rag over my cheeks and forearms and even applying some extra deodorant, all of which takes less than five minutes. Even in fall and winter, when temperatures plummet, a warm, damp washcloth can heat up my face and make me feel great.
6. Eat a Snack
Snacking benefits more than just your kids; eating a small amount of food between lunch and dinner can sustain your energy levels. A snack can keep you from the 3 o’clock grogginess that’s so common in afternoons of child wrangling. A snack can provide more nutrients in your diet. And a snack can even help prevent binge eating. If you don’t have allergies, try eating some nuts, a piece of fruit, a piece of cheese, some sugar snap peas, or even a 1oz piece of dark chocolate.
Earlier today, I was feeling lower than low. I was tired and snappish and mindlessly scrolling through my phone while my daughter ate her daily snack after lunch, yogurt with graham crackers. She chattered with me, perky as ever, and I realized that my energy had dipped because I’d had a light lunch and I needed a snack, too. So I pulled a yogurt of my own out from the fridge and ate with her. That bit of food was enough to perk me up and help me take on the rest of the day.
When you find your energy flagging, your brain slowing down, and your patience thinning, it’s time for some self-care. Self-care is not an indulgence; it’s a necessity. Without self-care, you’ll end up drained and likely not the parent you want to be.
Going on a nature walk, playing your favorite song, engaging your sense of smell, grabbing some ZZZs, practicing good hygiene, and/or eating a snack can help you feel better.
So try some of these strategies today! You don’t have anything to lose!
When my father pressured me at the last minute to host a family Thanksgiving two days before I was slated to drive 1500 miles last year, I refused.
At first I agreed. Why not cook a feast for my extended family, at least seven people in addition to my own husband and two children (11 people total)? I would have loved to have my family over and fete them with all the trappings of the Thanksgiving holiday, all of which I would be cooking by myself because my husband was finishing up tasks at work in order to prepare for our road trip.
This made sense to me at the time. I could do laundry and pack for the massive, month-long road trip after the Thanksgiving holiday was done, right?
But I realized that as a woman with bipolar I, that much stress would immediately spin me out into a dangerous manic episode. Because of my very serious psychiatric condition, I wouldn’t have been able to even enjoy the holiday or the road trip because I would be too busy preparing for both. If I had hosted Thanksgiving like my father wanted, I may have even ended up in a mental hospital.
Once I recognized that hosting a holiday was not only overwhelming but unhealthy, I then had to set a boundary, something that has been very difficult for me in the past. Girding up my strength, I texted my father back and told him my immediate family would be skipping the Thanksgiving holiday entirely that year in order to preserve my mental health.
His disappointment rang clear to me through his emoji-filled text, but he thankfully understood my reasoning, and ended up enjoying Thanksgiving with my sister. My immediate family ended up baking a small turkey breast we bought at Costco and making mashed potatoes, a very low-key holiday of our own for just the four of us.
Thanksgiving, an American feast holiday including traditional dishes like turkey and pumpkin pie typically eaten with friends and family, can be tricky when bipolar disorder is an uninvited guest.
The stress of the holiday, especially when taking on tasks like all the cooking for a large group, may tip a person you over into mania or hypomania, after which there is almost always a depressive crash.
I am here to tell you that your holidays do not have to be unhealthy.
You can stick to your guns and set healthy boundaries with your friends and family.
If you are an adult, your family absolutely cannot force you into any uncomfortable position unless you let them. Will there be consequences for asserting yourself? Yes, definitely. But those consequences may not be as awful for your and those surrounding you as damaging yourself with a manic episode.
Why Setting Boundaries is Important
When you first start to set boundaries, you will be uncomfortable, especially if you’ve never set them before. But doing so is incredibly important. If you do not express your preferences and stick to your guns about them, you invite people to ignore your needs and set them up to fail.
Set them up to fail? What? How does that make sense? It’s simple, really.
People aren’t mind readers. But how can they be good to you if you don’t tell them what your preferences are? If you don’t tell people if you’re angry or even annoyed, they can’t respond in a proper way and they’ll continue responding in the way they feel is right based on limited information, possibly angering you or annoying you further.
If you don’t tell people the truth about what you like or what your preferences are, and if you just go along with what they say or don’t say no to them about something that feels violating to you, you are setting them up to fail.
That doesn’t lead to a productive conversation or to someone knowing the real you. This is not your fault, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You can express your needs and get them met.
How to Set Boundaries This Holiday Season
Telling my father that my family wasn’t going to enjoy Thanksgiving with him was extremely difficult for me, someone who doesn’t set boundaries often, and especially not with him.
But having done my own research on how to set boundaries and having talked with my therapist about techniques, I was prepared.
Here are my steps to setting boundaries:
1. Find a supportive friend or partner to vent your feelings to before and after setting your boundary.
When I set boundaries with my father, I expressed my feelings of being overwhelmed to my husband, who helped me realize I could not take on the task of hosting Thanksgiving that year. My husband gave me the perspective and the courage I needed to stand up to my dad.
If you cannot find a friend or partner in your personal life offline to vent to, you may have more success online. You can also use a therapist for this. (For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here.)
2. Use clear, easy-to-understand language.
When expressing your needs, you do not want to be misunderstood or give anyone any leeway or wiggle room to interpret your words differently. Write down what you want to say ahead of time and read from your notes if necessary.
One of the best ways to express your feelings to others is to use “I” statements. When you say, “you made me feel…” that shifts blame onto the other person and puts them on the defensive. Plus, framing the sentence that way doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for your own feelings. Try “I feel,” instead.
Last Thanksgiving, I communicated with my own father via phone text, the medium he chose, so I was fortunate that I could tweak my words before sending him the message until they were the most effective I could come up with.
3. Modulate your tone.
Setting boundaries with an angry tone doesn’t work. People dismiss other angry people, and may end up getting defensive themselves. Try to speak as neutrally as possible. This will be difficult, but having your needs listened to and respected is worth it.
I always try to remain calm when setting boundaries. If I find myself getting worked up, I tell the person that I’m setting the boundary with that I need to walk away momentarily and will be back when I’m calm.
4. Do not over-explain yourself, or explain yourself at all if you so choose.
When you set a boundary, expect to be listened to. If you find that people are unable or unwilling to understand what you’ve said, repeat your clear, easy-to-understand statement until they get it. There is no need to over-explain your reasonings.
When I’ve over-explained in the past, I’ve found that people do not believe that I the boundary I am trying to set is firm. Having solid reasons–which I do not have to explain at all if I so choose, and neither do you–requires me to think about them ahead of time to determine if I’m comfortable with those reasons. In the Thanksgiving example, my mental health and the health of my immediate family had to come first.
5. Set consequences if your boundaries are crossed.
The most effective boundaries have consequences. You can always, always stop speaking to your family. It’s uncomfortable, but you might find that it’s freeing as well. If they’re not going to treat you in the way you deserve, with respect and kindness, then they do not in turn deserve your attention.
When setting boundaries with my father during Thanksgiving, I was fully prepared to stop speaking to him. Thankfully he understood my set boundary and I didn’t have to, but if he hadn’t and I’d stopped speaking to him, then he wouldn’t have seen us for Thanksgiving anyway, and possibly longer, depending on how long I was willing to stick to my guns. It was a win-win for me.
Specific Examples of Boundaries You can Set
Here are some specific examples of boundaries you can set and the language you can use to set them:
To set a boundary with an angry family member, say something like, “You will not treat me [in the specific way they’re treating you]. If you continue, I will leave the room (or hang up the phone call).”
To set a boundary with someone who criticizes you, say something like, “It is not okay with me that you comment on my [specific example, like eating patterns]. Please stop.”
To set a boundary with someone who asks too much of you, say something like, “Although you are important to me, I must say no to your [specific request] to take care of myself and my family.”
To back out of a commitment, say something like, “I know I agreed to [specific task], but after looking over my schedule, I recognize that I will not be able to give [the task] my all. I want to help you find a replacement by [specific date].”
Setting boundaries with your family will be difficult, but the personal power you gain will be worth it. Get some perspective from a trusted friend, use clear, easy-to-understand language, modulate your tone, do not over-explain yourself, and set consequences.
When I set my own boundary, I was fortunate that my father respected me enough to understand why I set it. But I was fully prepared to stop speaking to him. I set my boundary and stuck to it, and I had a peaceful holiday with my immediate family that I wouldn’t have traded for anything.
You can handle this Thanksgiving. Remember, you get to decide what your holiday season looks like. You family cannot force you into anything you do not choose to do. Your mental health is paramount, and if you do not protect yourself, no one else will.
The illness takes and takes and takes from you and your loved ones. But if you can find out what you need when you’re depressed and meet those needs, then you may feel a bit better and come out of the slump faster.
Like most people suffering from depression, when I’m dealing with a bipolar depressive episode, I have quite a few personal needs. I don’t feel selfish for having these needs or getting them met; that wastes time and the needs themselves aren’t selfish, they just exist.
Some of the time, I can meet these needs myself. But during depressive episodes, I often get overwhelmed and must call in my supporters (my friends and family) or my treatment team (a therapist and psychiatrist).
As of this writing, I am a stable–and happy!–woman with bipolar who has managed my mental illness for 13 years. So I am willing and able to share tips with you.
From reading my personal list of needs and learning how I meet them, you, too, can learn how to craft a list of needs of your own and figure out whether you can meet those needs yourself or whether it’s time to call in for help.
Here are my top 7 personal needs during a bipolar depressive episode, in descending order of importance:
Food is a basic human need. We all need food to function. But oftentimes, when I’m depressed, I forget to eat or worse, I am too apathetic to make myself food or even order pizza.
Sometimes, all I need is a reminder to make food and eat. I have daily alarms set at 4:15pm, 4:30pm, and 5:30pm to remind me to check the mail and start mentally preparing for dinner, prepare dinner, and serve and eat dinner with my family. Sometimes, these alarms are all I need to force myself into making dinner.
Other times, I need someone to pick up dinner for me and my children, and that task usually falls to my husband after he’s finished with his workday. I try not to rely on him too much because eating out is expensive and he, too, is tired, but there’s just some days I absolutely cannot make dinner because the lure of my bed is too great.
So food, and the making and eating of food, is one of my very important personal needs, despite being at the bottom of the list.
Like most people who are depressed, when I’m in the pit of despair I tend to isolate myself. I withdraw from the world because interacting with people takes too much time, energy, and mental headspace, and I just… I can’t. I can’t do it.
But I am a social creature, as all humans are, and my need for people is especially important because I am an extrovert who sinks further into depression if I don’t talk with people on at least a daily basis.
Often, talking with my online friends is enough to get me through the day, but I frequently speak in person to my children and husband as well. Sometimes the kids are draining rather than energizing, because they need a lot from me in turn, but I do like teaching them about crucial topics like consent.
6. Time to Myself to Process
On the flip side of needing people, I also need time to myself to process my emotions. When I’m enduring a depressive episode, I frequently suffer from a running commentary in my head saying I’m worthless and no one will ever love me.
So I often need a break from raising children and dealing with hungry spouses to counter those thoughts.
One of the ways I do so is to accomplish something small, like taking a shower. Which leads into my next need…
5. Smaller To-Do List
When I’m stable–or especially when I’m hypomanic–I run around like a chicken with my head cut off, accomplishing things. My to-do list easily has 10-12 items on it, almost all of which I at least try to cross off.
For me, a to-do list is a set of expectations. I expect to get a certain amount done in a day, and I don’t write down the big rocks of my day like meals or studying. I also don’t write down the innumerable little tasks I perform to make sure my children–13-years-old and 4-years-old–are happy, healthy, and sane.
I have a problem with to-do lists, however. I have deep-seated issues with equating being productive and useful with my value as a person. If I don’t get enough done, I often feel I’m worthless and unlovable. I’ve been trying to conquer these issues, but sometimes my brain is cruel to me and catches me flatfooted, and that’s especially true during my depressive episodes.
So when I’m depressed, I force myself to set lower expectations for myself. I absolutely cannot get done my standard set of things that I can when I’m stable. I give myself grace and a smaller to-do list.
And the items on this list are smaller things as well. When I’m truly in the depths of depression and cannot accomplish anything, I write down only things like, “eat breakfast,” “brush teeth,” and “take a shower.” If I get all three of those things done, I count that a win for the day.
For a post on how depression interferes with getting things done, click here.
And the more often you make these choices, those use up your bank of decision making power for the day, leading to something called decision fatigue.
When I’m depressed, putting things away feels like a Herculean effort. I’ve existed for weeks with dirty diapers strewn across the living room floor because picking them up and taking them to the trash was one too many steps.
Most of the time, I can force myself to put the dishes in the dishwasher and make sure things are where they’re supposed to be–and in the case of the diapers, that’s the trash.
But sometimes, I’m so far gone into depression that I cannot pick things up. Then I need to call in my friends and family for help–or simply live with the mess, which worsens the depression.
Fortunately for me, my family has been willing to help me conquer the mess. When pregnant and suffering a depressive episode, my mother and sister decluttered my absolutely packed closet and set up a nursery, to which I am eternally grateful.
3. Clean Body
Concurrent with a clean environment is a clean body. One of my early symptoms of depression–that actually worsens the slump–is not taking the time to shower.
When I’m suffering a depressive episode, showering takes far too many steps: walk into the bathroom, shut the door, strip, step into the shower, turn it on, stand under the spray… And so on and so on. I get overwhelmed looking at the big picture because I deal with the inability to break tasks down into smaller pieces. “Shower” is one huge task with too many steps in my head.
But if I don’t keep up with my hygiene, that’s just asking for problems. Like most people, when I’m feeling sweaty and grimy, I don’t feel good mentally.
Most of the time, as with a lot of the items on this list, I can force myself to shower. But there was a time when I was in college when I just couldn’t. My mom drove two hours from her home to my university apartment and washed my hair–and then took me to a crisis center because, yeah, I was that bad off.
There’s no shame in asking for someone’s help with showering. Whether you need someone to remind or encourage you to do so or you need someone you trust like a friend or family member to wash your hair, get the help you need.
Having a clean body is worth it because hygiene may make you feel better.
2. Reason to Get out of Bed
When I’m depressed, I absolutely need a reason to get out of bed. If you’ve read the rest of the list, I’ve touched on a few of those:
I need to accomplish things to feel useful
I need a clean environment–and so does my family
And I need to practice self-love by showering.
But my main reason for me to get out of bed is this: my family needs me. I have two children and a husband that I can’t let down. They need me to make dinner, chat with them about their day, and ensure that their own emotional health is protected.
If you have someone or something relying on you, you can use that as a reason to get out of bed. Even an animal, like a cat, that requires you to clean their litter box or feed them, can be enough. Sometimes even a plant that you need to water on a daily basis can be enough.
These are all external motivations. But when I’m depressed, I have absolutely no internal motivation. It just gets sucked into a black hole along with my self-worth. But external motivations work for me. They may work for you, too.
Once you find your own reason to get out of bed, don’t allow yourself to lie down again. I understand all too well the allure of the mattress. Just this morning, I laid back down after turning off my alarm and played on my phone, and before I knew it, 30 minutes had passed with me doing nothing but mindless scrolling. And I’m not even depressed!
So find your reason. You won’t regret it.
1. Grace and Understanding
Above all, when I’m suffering from a depressive episode, I require grace and understanding.
I need people to at least try to understand that I’m incapacitated. That my to-do-list is smaller, that I need help making food or a clean environment, that I desperately need encouragement to shower.
Fortunately, over the years, I have surrounded myself with people who understand all of that.
Building up relationships with people takes a long, long time, and I know you’re not in the mood to do so while depressed. But it’s so important to at least try to reach out to people who might understand what you’re going through, and ask for grace from your existing supporters.
For a post on
Finding people who just “get” your depression is a valuable blessing. They can give you advice and support in a myriad of ways.
Try. You don’t have anything to lose and everything to gain.
You can get your needs met while you’re in the midst of depression. You just need to know what they are so you can communicate them.
Now that you’ve read through my list of my top 8 needs while I’m suffering from a depressive episode, I encourage you to make your own list. Share it with your supporters and open up a conversation with them so you can see about getting those needs met.
You’re not alone in this. People want to help you. You can get your needs met.
And please, if you find yourself in crisis, visit this post for domestic crisis numbers for the U.S. or this post for international crisis numbers.
A lot of people think self-care is limited to bubble baths and nail-painting. But that’s just not the case.
Self-care is taking responsibility for your physical and mental wellbeing. That’s it. Through treating myself to some self-care on a daily basis (as well as engaging in therapy and taking my medication), I’ve been able to manage my bipolar disorder for the past several years. I am a stable–and happy!–woman with mental illness, so I am more than willing to share my favorite self-care strategies with you.
Here are 12 frugal, easy self-care ideas to help you treat your depression. Feel free to try as few or as many ideas on the list as you’re comfortable with.
Take a break from social media.
Social media is all-consuming. Perusing the curated feeds of your friends and family can make you think their lives are perfect and yours lacks something in comparison. Take a thirty-minute to an hour break from social media today.
Not everyone can be like me, who checks my Facebook account only once in a blue moon. I am, however, addicted to chatting on Discord, a chat service, so I do force myself to take breaks from the servers I’m a moderator of once in a while so I can refresh myself rather than being drained by constant pings. It’s a very similar strategy to putting my phone on DND, but it’s specifically tailored to Discord.
Go to your library’s website and put some books on hold.
Shopping for books gives a lot of people a thrill but can be expensive. Try perusing your local library’s website and place a few books on hold to pick up later.
I don’t read nearly as often as I’d like, but when I do read, I usually read fanfiction. The fanfic experience can be tailored to you; on archiveofourown.org, you can filter what fanfiction you’re looking for through tags.
You can do a similar search for books from your library’s website, looking up keywords and authors you’re interested in. If you
Write a short story.
Google the phrase “writing prompts” and see what you can come up with from the third prompt from the first result.
One of the best self-care strategies I ever practiced was allowing myself to write fanfiction. By disregarding the stigma and treating the activity as valuable, I was able to break through a 10-year writing dry spell where I wrote nothing at all. In a year’s time, I wrote over 500,000 words and improved my writing by leaps and bounds.
Creative writing is my special way to relax. Writing fiction, specifically fanfiction allows me to express my emotions through the characters’ actions and unpack facets of my own life, like how I starved when I was a child. I highly, highly recommend writing a story of your own.
Read one chapter of a book.
Reading is one of the best frugal activities out there. It engages your brain and promotes peace. Try reading one chapter of one of your favorite books.
Like I said earlier, I haven’t read a book in a while, but when I want to disengage after a long day and engage my brain in a different way, I read a fanfic from one of my favorite fandoms. I have specific authors that I follow, and I am good friends with some of them.
Reading is one way for you to “turn off” your working brain and “turn on” your relaxed brain.
Do something imperfectly.
The perfect is the enemy of the good, and perfectionism is a killer. Give yourself permission to do something imperfectly, like coloring outside the lines on a coloring sheet.
When I started writing fanfic, I allowed myself not to obsess over whether I was using commas correctly. This small change opened the floodgates of my writing, and I wrote over 500,000 words in a year. Earlier, when I was driven to create a “perfect” piece, that killed my enthusiasm for writing entirely.
Allow yourself to try something doing something new or old imperfectly. Let go of the bad habit of perfectionism in a small, unique way.
Buy a pet plant.
Gardening is a fun activity with numerous health benefits. Caring for something small other than yourself can give you a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Studies have shown that nurturing a plant promotes good feelings. Philodendrons are beautiful, green plants with heart-shaped leaves that are easy to keep alive. Head to the nursery section of your local grocery story and purchase a philodendron or other easy pet plant.
My front yard is full of plants that my mother put in the ground for me. I love seeing the delicate, blue flowers of my vinca plants blooming. Watching my large-leafed, heart-shaped hostas grow bigger and bigger is a treat. And when the corkscrew willow tree’s leaves unfurl for spring, it’s one of the best markers of the year.
Drink a cup of tea or coffee.
Especially on cold days, a cup of tea or coffee can be just what the doctor ordered. The caffeine kick can help you get through your day but even if you drink decaffeinated beverages, the warmth from the drinks can help soothe you.
When I read this in my post, I immediately stood up to go make tea for myself and my family. My favorite tea is Harvey & Son’s Hot Cinnamon Spice, a bracing black tea with a rich flavor of orange and cloves. Drinking a cup of tea is one of my favorite ways to warm up.
If you concentrate on what you have and how grateful you are to have it, then you are less likely to ruminate on negative things. Practice gratitude by writing down five things you’re thankful for.
When I find myself getting spinning in circles because of how busy I am, I like to stop and count my blessings. I say a prayer to God thanking him for the big things–my health, my food, and my shelter–and then try to come up with something specific. This helps me focus on what I have rather than what I don’t have, preventing FOMO: the Fear of Missing Out.
Cross something off your to-do list.
If you have the energy, tackle something that you’ve been meaning to get done for a while. But before you do so, visualize how good it will feel to have the item done. Picture yourself having done the task, and how much more free you feel.
I love crossing items off my to-do list. One of the best ways for me to soothe myself is to pull up my sleeves and get something done, like writing this post.
Depression, unfortunately, makes getting even the smallest task done difficult. But do try. Even getting a small item done will give you a sense of accomplishment and that may be enough to get through the rest of your day.
Declutter the nearest surface to you.
If you’re stuck in bed, then spend five to ten minutes clearing off and dusting your nightstand. You don’t have to spend an hour or two decluttering to make progress. Decluttering the nearest surface to you will give you a clear space to look at and a feeling of satisfaction.
When I’m depressed, I tend to let the environment around me fall into squalor. Things surround me: pizza boxes, dirty diapers, moldy dishes–you name it. It’s not good. So when I’m deep in the depths, I try to tackle the mess one step at a time.
I usually start with the dishes, clearing off the counters, and then take a break. That sense of accomplishment enables me to move on to the next step: picking up the floor, and so on and so on.
Do a full-body check-in.
Starting with your toes and progressing upward to your shins, thighs, hips, stomach, etc., ask yourself how each of your body parts feel. Are you cramping or sore anywhere? Are you thirsty? Hungry? Address those issues. Get a drink if you’re thirsty. Eat something if you’re hungry. And stretch.
A full-body check in works in tandem for me with a meditation exercise: imagine the sun creeping up your body from your toes, spilling over your legs, warming up your hips, filling your belly, and suffusing your chest.
If I do this exercise after a full-body check-in and then address all the needs I’ve found in my body, that’s one of the best ways for me to perform physical self-care.
Take 3 deep breaths.
Breathing deeply is one of the best ways to center yourself. Try the box breathing method: Take seven seconds to breathe in through your nose, hold for six seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds through your mouth. This will help you feel calmer and detoxify your body.
I often have trouble remembering to breathe when I need to, instead getting more and more hyped up until I’m hyperventilating. When I do remember to take a breath (or when a dear friend reminds me to), I can calm myself down and take a moment to re-center myself.
So those are The Bipolar Parent’s easy, frugal, must-try self-care ideas for depression!
Self-care is not an indulgence. It’s caring for yourself in a way that puts your health front and center. And if you engage in self-care on a weekly or even daily basis, you’ll start to build up a reservoir of good feelings.
Feel free to try as many of these strategies as you feel like trying. There’s no pressure here.