bipolar parent

New Year, New Me, New Ways to Manage My Bipolar Disorder

Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

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.

Bring it on.

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bipolar parent

5 Tips to Make (and Keep!) New Year’s Resolutions with a Mental Illness

Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

Have you ever failed to keep a New Year’s resolution?

You’re not alone. Studies show that 92% of Americans who set resolutions fail at keeping them, and up to 80% fail by February.

But was your mental illness to blame?

For a lot of us, setting resolutions sends a shot of dopamine straight into our brains, but it’s hard to make plans–and keep them!–when you have unpredictable brain chemistry.

As a woman with bipolar who has historically overextended myself during the holidays, I’ve started most new years of my adult life in the midst of major depressive episodes.

As you know full well if you’ve ever had depression, that sucks. It puts a damper on the whole year.

So this year will be different. I’ll not only plan my holidays effectively and with my mental health in mind, I’ll also take steps to thrive with bipolar disorder during the hustle and bustle of December.

But what does that mean for New Year’s resolutions?

Well, I can set good ones and keep them despite my mental illness putting obstacles in my way, and so can you.

Here’s how.

1. When Making Resolutions, Prioritize Your Mental Health

Celebrate the new year by taking charge of your mental health.

Fixing your sleep hygiene, taking your medications daily, seeing a therapist regularly–these are the kinds of resolutions people who struggle with their mental health need to make.

And make sure not to set resolutions that interfere with your health. If there’s a resolution that forces me to sacrifice sleep, encouraging me to sleep less than 8 hours a night, that is not one I’ll even entertain.

My resolutions in this area are twofold:

  1. Monitor myself better for signs of depression and mania, and
  2. Seek help at the very first signs of a bipolar mood episode.

I have a treatment team waiting in the wings ready for me to call on them. If you don’t, getting one in place would be a great resolution. For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here. For a post on how to get a psychiatric evaluation, click here.

2. Know Thyself

Not everyone knows what challenges them most, but a lot of us have a gut instinct as to what those issues are.

Before you make a resolution to hit the gym everyday that you’ll balk at when it comes time to put your nose to the grindstone, sit down and figure out why you balk.

Do you not like the gym because you’re overwhelmed by all the options? Ask one of the employees to recommend a class to you.

Do you not like the gym because you have to get up early? Try a walk after dinner instead. You can even take the kids!

Do you not like the gym because of social anxiety? Try practicing meditation and go to a therapist to conquer that problem first.

And so on.

Know what challenges you the most and work around those issues. Starting with something that makes you more comfortable and that you feel you can tackle first will give you confidence to handle the next step.

My plan in making resolutions is to list the barriers that will get in the way of me fulfilling those resolutions. Be they internal, like social anxiety, or external, like my need for childcare, I will list them out and figure out ways around or through the obstacles.

My resolution for this area is to sit down and identify trouble spots when it comes to treating myself right. To prevent myself from sinking into a depressive episode this January, I need to figure out where I’m struggling.

My resolution in this area is to start keeping a daily gratitude journal. If I can find out what I’m grateful for on a daily basis, I can hopefully also identify where my challenges are.

3. Break Resolutions Down into Steps

When I’m depressed, most of the time I’m completely overwhelmed.

I am usually unable to see past the seemingly-insurmountable mountain of dishes, and I simply cannot think my way past that into “do one dish at a time.”

On the flip side, my past resolutions have been monsters. “Lose weight.” “Be fit.” “Eat healthy.”

But “eat healthy and lose weight” are too big of resolutions for me, especially when I’m depressed. They’re not specific, measurable, or time-sensitive. “Eat one salad a day” is much, much easier.

Rather than “eat healthy and lose weight,” my resolution in this area is to eat salads or vegetables for lunches every day.

For a more extensive post on how to break things down into bite-sized pieces when you have depression, click here.

4. Start When You Feel You Can

You don’t have to start on January 1st just because you’ve made a New Year’s resolution.

For example, if you’re not ready to conquer your social anxiety–if you don’t buy into the process of learning how to do a goal and then doing it–then you’re not going to.

To stick to a resolution, you need to have the mindset that you can keep this, and you need to be ready to start making progress to goal.

If you need to wait until summer for your head and your heart to be in the right places, then wait until summer.

My resolution in this area is to start a gratitude journal as soon as I’m ready to do so.

5. Know That Quitting Isn’t Bad

If you make an impulse buy when your resolution is to spend less money, don’t be filled with self-loathing. Just recognize that you’ve made a mistake and move on.

And if you do make a mistake, take some time to reevaluate whether this resolution is worth keeping at that point in your life. Sometimes things we try fail because they no longer make sense to do.

There’s no shame in quitting something that no longer works for us, even when the action used to be objectively good. That’s true of everything in our lives: from our resolutions to social media to our jobs and even our relationships.

And just because you’ve put time/energy/money/work/resources into something that used to be objectively good doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work now.

Keeping on the same path that doesn’t work now just because you’ve been walking it for a while is called the ‘sunk cost fallacy,’ and a lot of people get tripped up by this way of thinking.

Don’t fall into that trap. If a resolution used to work but isn’t working for you anymore, examine why that is and figure out if it’s still worth striving for.

My resolution for this area is to give myself grace when I mess up and try again on the things that are truly important and working for me at that point in my life.

Let’s Recap

With these tips and specific, measurable goals, you can stick to your New Year’s resolutions.

First, when setting resolutions, prioritize your mental health. Next, know what challenges you’ll be facing and work around them. After that, break resolutions down into steps. Start when you feel you can. And make sure to recognize that quitting isn’t bad.

Give yourself grace this year, and strive to make positive, wholesome changes in your life.

You can do this.

I wish you well in your journey.

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Mental Wellness Month: How to Look After Yourself in the New Year

Mental Wellness Month: How to Look After Yourself in the New Year - Cassandra Stout.com

The new year brings new beginnings and a sense of starting fresh. Everything is fresh and full of potential. What better time than the new year to start looking after your mental health?

January is Mental Wellness Month in the U.S. It’s part of a public health and awareness campaign set up by the International Association of Insurance Professionals (IAIP), an educational organization created for insurance professionals. Mental wellness focuses on prevention of further mental health issues rather than the treatment of what’s already there.

What You Can Do to Celebrate Mental Wellness Month

Taking a proactive approach to your mental health can help you nip problems in the bud. There are many things you can do to celebrate Mental Wellness Month, the foremost of which is looking after yourself. But you can also raise awareness of mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Here are some other things you can do during Mental Wellness Month:

  1. Get a mental check up from your psychiatrist and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Set up an appointment with your psychiatrist today for a mental-health check in. If you don’t have a psychiatrist, ask for a referral from your primary care physician.
  2. Plan out goals for the new year. Setting goals is a great way to challenge yourself. If you set a mental health goal like, “I will do self-care three times a week for eight weeks,” then you can look forward to taking better care of yourself.
  3. Start a gratitude journal. Listing what you’re thankful for on a daily basis elevates serotonin, a feel good chemical. Start a gratitude journal to try to remind yourself of what you actually have, and don’t focus on what you don’t.
  4. If  you have bipolar disorder, you can start tracking your moods. Charting your moods when you have bipolar disorder is a helpful bellwether. If you track what you feel for a few weeks, your doctor will be able to read the data and make a better plan to treat you. You can also figure out your triggers for mood episodes. For a post on how to get started tracking your moods and why, click here.
  5. Destress from the holidays. Prioritizing self-care during the holidays is difficult, which can make your mental health go down the toilet quickly. Getting back on track and making sure that you destress from the holidays is so important. Try meditation, a bubble bath, or eating a one-ounce square of dark chocolate.
  6. Attend a therapy session to discuss your hopes and dreams and current struggles. Therapy is crucial for most people’s mental health. If you have a therapist, try to attend at least one session in the month of January to celebrate Mental Wellness Month.
  7. Post about mental health issues on social media to raise awareness of mental wellness issues. Most of the time, I advocate for leaving social media behind, and not engaging more than you really need to. But, if you are going to browse social media and don’t want to give it up, then you can post about Mental Wellness Month and other mental health issues to raise awareness.
  8. Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed. Communicating with our friends and loved ones gives them a chance to help us, or manage their expectations of us. You don’t want to ask them to manage your emotions, but help cleaning the kitchen or taking the kids for an afternoon so you can get a nap in is a perfectly fine idea.
  9. Make a commitment to eat better. Our diets affect our moods. I’ve written before about how plant-based, whole foods diets and Mediterranean diets can help alleviate symptoms of depression. Make a commitment to eat better for a month, and see how you feel at the end of it.

Final Thoughts

Celebrating Mental Wellness Month doesn’t have to be difficult. You can celebrate as little or as much as you want, publicly or privately. If you prioritize taking care of yourself during the month of January, that’s all the celebration you need.

Happy Mental Wellness Month!

What will you do to celebrate Mental Wellness Month? Leave me a note in the comments!

mental-wellness-month-january-self-care-600x900-pin-2
Mental Wellness Month: How to Look After Yourself in the New Year – Cassandra Stout.com.

bipolar parent

Ring in the New Year By Writing Yourself a Mental Health Vision Statement

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Ring in the New Year by Setting a Mental Health Vision Statement – CassandraStout.com

What do you want to accomplish in the next week? The next month? The next year?

A vision statement is usually reserved for businesses. It’s a purpose-driven overview of what the business owner wants to accomplish with their company. It should leave nothing to interpretation. You want to set this goal and contribute to the end result of the vision statement with little steps you can take during everyday life.

Most vision statements are an overarching goal of the company. For example, Disney’s is “make people happy.” There’s no reason you can’t write a personal, mental-health oriented vision statement. And yours doesn’t have to be nearly as ambitious, and you may want to center it on improving your own station rather than making other people happy, sometimes an impossible feat.

So how do you write a mental-health oriented vision statement to ring in the new year?

Basic Guidelines for Vision Statements

Here are the basic guidelines for vision statements. Keep in mind that you don’t have to follow all of these guidelines, but they’re good starting points.

  1. A vision statement should be short. A vision statement is a brief outline of your goals. It should be one-to-two sentences, max.
  2. A vision statement should be specific. What are you hoping to accomplish with your goal? Try to be as specific as possible. Disney’s vision statement, “make people happy,” is too general and too other-people focused for the vision statement you want to make.
  3. A vision statement should be simple. Everyone who hears or reads your vision statement should be able to understand it. The less complex you make your end goal, the more likely it is that you are to follow it.
  4. A vision statement should be ambitious, but achievable. When setting goals for yourself, you want to challenge yourself to accomplish great things. If you’re suffering from depression, such a challenge seems impossible to complete. That’s okay. You can adjust the level of ambition based on how you’re feeling. Like, “I will take a shower, feed myself, and make my bed everyday for six months.” These lofty goals are challenging for a depressed person, right? But definitely achievable.

Following these guidelines will help you write a compelling vision statement.

Vision Statement Examples

Using the above guidelines, set a goal for yourself which is mental-health oriented. Try to make the vision statement short, simple, specific, and ambitious but achievable.

For example:

  • “I will focus on self-care three days a week for eight weeks, which should improve my mood.”
  • “I will lose 11 pounds in three months by eating a Mediterranean diet, which may help treat my depression.”
  • “I will find a competent therapist and attend therapy as often as I can afford, but preferably once a month, for the next year.”

Try to stay true to yourself, and focus on the types of goals that you can achieve.

Final Thoughts

If you can, do some thinking about what kinds of overarching, mental-health oriented vision statements you want to set for the next six months to a year. Setting yourself an ambitious but achievable goal may encourage you to meet it, and hopefully take care of yourself in the new year.

Happy New Year!

What vision statement do you think you’ll set for yourself this year? Let me know in the comments!

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Ring in the New Year by Setting a Mental Health Vision Statement - Cassandrastout.com