People with bipolar disorder can face many challenges — from the illness’s fluctuating feelings to its destructive effects on relationships. Below, two experts reveal some of the biggest obstacles and offer strategies to overcome them.
“Bipolar disorder can feel uncontrollable,” according to Sheri L. Johnson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkeley and director of the Cal Mania (CALM) Program. Symptoms, such as mood changes, can seem to appear suddenly and without provocation. And they can diminish daily functioning and ruin relationships, said Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, a psychotherapist and author of The DBT Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder.
Strategies: While bipolar disorder can seem unpredictable, there are often patterns and triggers you can watch out for. And even if you can’t prevent symptoms, you can minimize and manage them.
One way to monitor changes is to keep a mood chart, Van Dijk said. Depending on which chart you use, you can record everything from your mood to the number of hours you slept, your anxiety level, medication compliance and menstrual cycle, she said. (This is a good chart, she said.) For instance, you can anticipate a potential depressive episode if you see that your mood has been progressively sinking in the last few days, Van Dijk said.
Practicing healthy habits is an effective way to lessen the hold emotions have on you. Make it a priority to get enough sleep, going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time, Van Dijk said. Create a calm bedtime routine, avoid substances such as alcohol – which disrupts sleep – and don’t exercise in the evenings, said Johnson, also co-author of Bipolar Disorder: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed.
Sleep deprivation can trigger mania, and “it makes you more susceptible to being controlled by your emotions, such as irritability,” Van Dijk said. On the other hand, sleeping too much can cause lethargy and also reduce your ability to manage emotions, she said.
Exercise helps to reduce depressive symptoms. Eliminating caffeine can reduce irritability and anxiety and improve sleep, Van Dijk said. She suggested cutting out caffeine for two weeks and paying attention to any changes. Some people also find that certain foods exacerbate their mood swings. You can check by cutting out specific foods from your diet, and watching the results, she said.
You also can use a variety of strategies to stave off the negative consequences from your symptoms. For instance, if impulsive spending is a problem, gain control by having a low limit on your credit cards, Johnson said. When you’re experiencing early signs of mania, have someone else hold onto your checks and cards, Johnson said. If you do overspend, return your purchases, she said. You can even ask a friend to go with you, she added.