No amount of sugar or substance can make my brain buzz the way a dose of hypomania can. The ideas, the thoughts, and the LIFE that course through my head – all those are amplified in a time of crisis or extreme change. Being thrown off my daily routine or sleep schedule is a risk to my mental health. So throwing me into a global pandemic and giving me access to information 24/7 can really shake things up.
I find myself hopping around from medical research sites to conspiracy theory groups to political commentaries and read over all the comments and opinions. I am an excellent mimic. In order to manage my symptoms early on, I found a way to adapt to acceptable behavior and commentary, so I wouldn’t have to stand out any more than my buzzing brain could allow. I know what I shouldn’t voice in public or on social media, at risk of anyone thinking I am “crazy,” the C word accusation being one of my biggest threats. I fear other people’s opinions of me more than the average person, because deep down inside I know that my brain functions differently from everyone else’s, and that is scary. So I turn inward, and obsess, and research some more, and head down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, at the expense of my sanity.
At first the racing thoughts and buzz are a high, and they fuel me and energize me. At some point though, my brain reaches breaking point and I have to make it stop. I’ve been down these roads long enough to know where they end – in verbal explosions or in heavy medication to shut it all off.
So I fight. I maintain my mind by shutting off my triggers. I stop researching, stop listening and reading to anything that will throw me into a black hole of information. I take naps, and I go to sleep early. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never struggled with sleep. I can always breathe myself to sleep. In for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, out for 8 seconds. I burn off the energy through heavy exercise. I write, I dig into my feelings and name what is going on instead of escaping through obsessive behaviors.
The thing about bipolar disorder, is that it manifests differently in everyone. Everyone struggles in a unique way, and everyone has different triggers.
I’ve compiled a list of my favorite tools for finding stability during times of major stress or life change. Before I list them, here is the caveat – these tools aren’t always effective in the middle of a full-fledged episode. It is really hard to tell someone who cannot physically get out of bed due to depression, “You should just lace up your shoes and go outside. Why are you just laying there?” Or telling someone who’s manic, “Slow down and go to sleep.” It doesn’t work like that. These are physical illnesses that affect the physical function of our bodies. Our brains aren’t capable of telling our bodies to do what our bodies need to do. This is why we have to be on the offense and employ these tools REGULARLY, during times of stability, so that they are habitual and instinctual. The sooner we can tighten up these strategies at the beginning of the roller coaster climb or at the beginning of the dip downward, the better off we will be.
My number one tool I have learned for coping is self-awareness. I have to be able to catch the roller coaster when it begins the slow climb, not when it’s at the top. I ask myself, have I been doing too much? Am I on social media too much? Am I spending a significant amount of time researching? Am I going to bed at regular times, or am I staying up thinking and planning? What are the healthy behaviors I am engaging in? I ask people around me to help. My mom has always been good at catching the changes in my speech patterns, also a sign. I have to let other people speak into my behavior, as frustrating as it seems. And I HAVE to do it before things get too bad. This means knowing personal triggers, as I mentioned above. One of my friends, the one with the car analogy, told me that politics and natural disasters can really get his head spinning. He has to be careful about obsessing over those areas. I am the same way, but with social injustice, whether it is racial, medical-related, human trafficking, anything where I feel that rights are being taken away from people – that fires me up and sends me down all kinds of mental rabbit holes. That’s when I need to close the tabs in my brain and shut things down.
Routine is the next tool. Routine is crucial for those of us who are bipolar, which is why stressful events or change are detrimental. So what happens when you are thrown off your routine? Create a new one, and be consistent. I’ll give you an example. I wake up anytime from 7-8 in the morning. Pre-pandemic, I was trying to get in the habit of waking up earlier than my kids for some alone time, but currently my need for sleep is greater than my need for alone time. I make coffee, and I open my Bible and journal before I open up my phone (more on the social media trap in a minute). Lately I have had a lot of unnatural jittery energy, so I harness that in the form of a workout of some kind in the first part of the day. I actually look forward to my Bible reading and my workouts, because they have become staples to my new routine. I can’t leave to meet with clients, so I typically have online meetings, podcast interviews, or I get some writing in during the afternoon. We start dinner early, maybe 4:30 or 5, and we have been planning a lot of fun meals to cook at home, so that is another way to harness my energy. At night we watch something funny and simple, so as not to get my mind going into dark places. My dreams have been louder than usual, which is not great for me.
*Another important part of routine for so many people is medication. A pandemic or stressful period is NOT a time to try going off of meds. It is NOT a time to think, “Oh I’m fine, I don’t need meds.” Nope, not a good idea. Tapering off meds is only a good idea under doctor supervision and, in my opinion and experience, during a time of stability in work, home life, health, world events, etc. Along with that, I don’t believe adding in or taking away helpful nutritional supplements is a good idea during this time as well. You know I’m a huge fan of supplements, and they have been instrumental in restoring balance to my body, but this is not the time to shake things up.
Sleep is another important tool. A predictable sleep schedule will help balance circadian rhythm function. Dysregulation in circadian rhythm and bipolar disorder is well documented in scientific studies, and it is a constant struggle to find sleep with a racing mind. Lack of sleep leads to more racing thoughts which leads to a greater lack of sleep. As we often say about babies while sleep training, “sleep begets sleep,” and this is very true when fighting off mania. Napping is also helpful, but I have to be careful because sometimes if I nap during the day it will be harder to fall asleep at night. I only drink caffeine in the morning, because I don’t want anything to interfere with my night’s sleep. Getting some sun during the day, if possible, can also help prepare my body for sleep at night. Because many of us are spending more time on screens than we were before, wearing blue light blocking glasses can be very helpful for mood stability. Blue lights block melatonin production, and because melatonin production and serotonin production are so closely linked, excessive blue light isn’t helpful for mood health.
The next tool for me is what I’ve already mentioned – movement. Whether I am on the upside or downside, I have to get my body moving. This is another tool that is well-documented in research. What I find so interesting is movement not only gives me a dopamine rush when I’m down but it also calms the beast of hypomania when I’m feeling more “alert” than usual. Yoga and breathwork are soothing for my vagus nerve, but getting my heart rate up through a long run or cardio workout have a similar soothing affect to my noisy thoughts. I know this is a struggle for so many people. They don’t want to take the time, or put the effort in, or can’t figure out where to get started. There are so many apps and programs to make this doable at home – even with little kids running around – and stepping outside in your neighborhood is the easiest thing in the world. I don’t do it because I always want to – I do it because it’s a matter of sickness or health for me. And it isn’t just about me – it’s about taking care of myself for the people in my life that I need to take care of. If movement helps balance my mind, I will do it, even when it’s hard to feel motivated.
Engaging in some kind of creative outlet is another thing that helps me. Allowing my brain to get lost in a fiction book slows my heart rate and calms my mind. That has been a go-to tool for me since I was little. I always feel safer when I am experiencing another world through literature, whether it’s stories I write and create or someone else’s. For others, maybe it’s painting or coloring, or crafting. I feel my heart rate slow down, my breathing become more steady, and everything in my body relax when I am reading. Watching movies or series on a streaming service does not have the same calming effect, I think in many cases that can be overstimulating, especially if news alerts or ads are popping up and as I mentioned – I am trying to avoid them.
Nutrition is also important. I mentioned already I am sensitive to caffeine, but I am also sensitive to a sugar overload, whether in the form of sweets or alcohol. It affects my mood and my sleep. I make sure that I am balancing my meals with enough protein, fat, and carbs. Hanger doesn’t help my mood, and when I am in a racing state, I often forget to feed myself. I try not to be too restrictive but include what I have found to be most balancing for me, which I explain in my podcast episode, Eating for Mental Wealth. A lot of people look down upon the idea of “comfort eating,” but I think during times of intense change and uncertainty, we should be more gentle and gracious with ourselves when it comes to eating. In this state, nourished is best. Neglecting eating, cutting out macronutrients, or living off of sugar is not the most sustaining for anyone’s mental well-being. This isn’t a time to start obsessing about weight gain, though people with disordered eating issues can definitely experience flare ups during times of intense stress. Remember that your body is always trying to protect you from famine. If you gain weight, it’s because your body is doing what it has been designed to do from the beginning – store fat in case of tragic events like a pandemic where supplies run scarce. Chronic anxiety triggers more cortisol production, which may lead to more fat storage. It’s okay, don’t get caught up in food fear. Ask yourself, “What can I eat today that will nourish my brain health?” Some of my favorite brain foods are blueberries, leafy greens, eggs (make sure to eat the yolk), avocados, grass fed beef, broccoli, and sardines. Don’t freak out when I say the word sardines. If you like tuna, you’ll love sardines. They are less fishy-tasting and perfect mixed with some mayo (I like the chipotle lime flavor from Primal Kitchen), Dijon mustard, lemon pepper, and a few banana peppers. Seriously try it – you might like it!
Monitoring your use of social media is huge. There are so many articles, opinions, and videos being shared right now. These trigger a heightened stress and anxiety response in the body. When cortisol is firing out at a rapid pace, the brain goes into fight or flight and it becomes very difficult to access the prefrontal cortex, which is where we activate empathy, proper decision-making, and connect with other humans. I have learned the hard way that I need to limit my time on social media, and I have completely stopped clicking on every gloom and doom article that is posted. I asked my husband to keep the news off when I am in the room, and to only update me on a need-to-know basis. As I mentioned before, I can get really wrapped up in social justice, and because I am also a bit of a rebel, and don’t like being told what to do, I can REALLY get caught up in fringe or underground movements that seek to go against the status quo.
The last thing, and most important, is finding ways to connect to other human beings. Some may argue that healthy social connections and relationships are the number one most important tool for health and longevity. Loneliness is a sickness that has been studied to be just as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. During time periods where we are forced to be isolated, as in this time of social distance, it is more important than ever to find ways to connect with other people, maybe through Facetime or Zoom or any of the latest face to face technology. If you see a counselor regularly, and I recommend that everyone should, increasing appointment frequency or continuing that schedule as usual is very helpful. Making sure to connect with the people you are closest to, the people in your support team, is mandatory.
Now, that list could go on and on. I’m sure there is something that I’m forgetting. If there is, I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email or let me know what YOU are doing to cope during this pandemic.
Stay safe. Take care of your brain. You aren’t stuck with a broken brain. There are so many tools for healing, and I hope and pray that you can find what works for you – there is no one size fits all, but we ALL get the opportunity to pursue true wellness.