Stress affects everything in your body, from your shoulders to your hormones, from your immune system to your mental illnesses. Stress is a physical issue, just like bipolar disorder, as both mess with your feel-good chemicals.
There are different types of stress. There’s good stress (also called eustress), which can motivate you to make dinner on time and meet deadlines at work. Good stress is infrequent, usually not repeated, and short-lived, leaving you better off than you were before you encountered the stress.
Bad stress, on the other hand, lingers. It lasts a long time and repeats frequently, leaving you much worse off than you were before.
But stress is even worse for people who suffer from mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder. People with mental health conditions tend to be unable to handle stress as well as neurotypical people. For people with bipolar disorder, even small, inconsequential decisions can stress us out. If we feel stress during everyday decisions, then the fact that stress exacerbates bipolar disorder symptoms makes sense.
Bipolar disorder and stress, especially bad stress, are a nasty combination. Stress is a known trigger for both hypomanic and depressive episodes–and sometimes even mixed episodes.
My Experience with Stress
Different types of stresses affect me in different ways. Before a long road trip or a flight, I get riled up and anxious without fail. I definitely have racing thoughts and other symptoms of hypomania, minus the euphoria. Sleeping becomes difficult, which only exacerbates the manic feelings.
On the flip side, feeling stressed about my messy house depresses me. The link between clutter and depression is very real, as having items on the floor focuses me to make decisions about them (specifically, whether to put them away or leave them there) every time you walk past them. After a full day of making many, many decisions and (usually) not taking any action on the items, I suffer decision fatigue, which for me leads to depression.
When I’m stress-depressed, I often berate myself for my inability to pick up the house. I know rationally that my laziness isn’t really laziness, but is a problem called executive dysfunction, which stress also makes worse.
Executive dysfunction is the inability to prioritize tasks, and determine the order of actions. Stress makes prioritizing and deciding on which actions to take very difficult, which is common for those of us who suffer mental illness.
(For a post on the link between bipolar disorder and executive functioning, click here.)
When I’m stressed, my ability to handle my responsibilities falters significantly, which only leads to more stress. I am reduced to a ruminating mess, turning in circles and chasing my own tail. Bad stress makes me completely incapable of acting like a functional adult.
Take Care of Yourself: Destress
If you want to improve your bipolar disorder symptoms, you need to manage your stress levels. Being constantly stressed, especially with bad stress, will lead to a mood episode.
Sometimes you can make big changes, like getting a new job or finding a new living situation. Diet also plays a role in how well you’re able to handle stress, so a lifestyle change like eating healthier foods may help you fill up your tank.
Even small changes can help. Starting a yoga or taekwondo class can help you relax. Deep-breathing techniques may also reduce your stress.
Talking to a therapist is also a good idea. You can learn coping techniques and tools for handling stress throughout the rest of your life.
Above all, practice self-care. Self-care is taking responsibility for your physical and mental well-being. That’s it. Don’t neglect to eat regularly, get enough sleep, go outside, socialize with people face-to-face, drink enough water, and exercise. If you do most of these big six tenants of self-care on a daily basis, you will be better off.
Bad stress affects me in a lot of negative ways. I’m not the best at handling stressful situations. So I plan ahead for them. I make massive to-do lists, outlining each tiny step that I need to take in order to conquer the issue. And I practice self-care.
Bad stress may affect you despite your best efforts. You may end up living through many, many stressful situations throughout your life, like moves, marriages, and births. You need to lean on your coping tools during these times.
Plan ahead. Take the times when life is relatively calm to assess your ability to handle stress, and plan how you’ll respond to changes. If necessary, you can get a prescription for anti-anxiety medications that you take on an as-needed basis.
Effectively managing your stress will help you suffer less from your bipolar disorder.
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