What is the Link Between Stress and Bipolar Disorder?

The Link Between Stress and Bipolar Disorder - CassandraStout.com

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.

Final Thoughts

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.


The Link Between Stress and Bipolar Disorder - CassandraStout.com

bipolar parent

Learned Behaviors: Passing on Coping Mechanisms

Learned behaviors are just as it says on the tin: behaviors that are learned rather than innate, such as a dog being taught to roll over. These behaviors are born from experience, coming from conditioning through rewards and punishments. Learned behaviors can also be f0und in the children of the mentally ill.

Credit to flickr.com user Delete. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Some learned behaviors of children of ill parents are over-responsibility, inability to cope with life unless it’s chaotic, or equating worth as a person solely with achievements. As they grow into adults, many kids will mirror symptoms of the disordered parent even if they themselves are not mentally ill.  For example, children of depressed parents can exhibit depressive symptoms when under stress even if the children themselves are not depressed.

Habits–good or bad–can be passed on. Most children learn coping mechanisms when dealing with their mentally ill parent–possibly negative ones such as temper tantrums, lying, and manipulation, if the parent is an unhealthy role model. When I’m too tired to cook, which happens depressingly often, I’ll pack the kids into the car and go through the drive thru at Taco Bell or some other fast food restaurant. I take a lot of pleasure in eating out. Now I worry that these bad eating habits will be instilled in my children. Nolan, my eight-year-old, already asks if we’re going out on a regular basis.

How the house is run can also be passed on. My own mother–who does not have bipolar disorder–learned her disorganized patterns from her mother–who demonstrated symptoms of the illness–and I’ve learned them from mine. From frequently being late to rarely making meals on time, we have three generations of chaos under our belts.

But there are also positive aspects of mental illnesses that can be learned by children. My own son has learned to be patient with me when I have down days or up. He is also compassionate, which I largely attribute to his having learned how to interact with me when I’m not at my best. And he’s sensitive as well.

This is not to say that I subscribe to the behaviorist theory of mental illnesses, which is to say that disorders are learned. Not in the slightest. The causes of bipolar disorder are genetic, physiological, and environmental stressors which trigger those who are already susceptible to the disease. Just that some coping strategies–healthy and otherwise–can be passed on to children of mentally ill parents.

What habits are you afraid to pass on to your children? Conversely, which habits do you want them to get from you?