5 Tips to Help People With Bipolar Disorder Adjust to Life Right Now
If you’ve spent a lot of time at home since March 2020, it can feel like a lot to go back to the office, make dinner plans, or attend large events. And living with bipolar disorder can make resuming these pre-pandemic activities feel particularly exhausting or be overstimulating, according to Melvin McInnis1, M.D., director of the bipolar research program at the University of Michigan.
Maintaining a routine is one important part of managing bipolar disorder, but creating and sticking to one can be challenging when you have so many new ways to spend your time. If you’re worried about things like transitioning back to work and socializing, here are a few expert-backed tips that can help.
1. Prioritize getting enough sleep.
A consistent sleep schedule is an important aspect of anyone’s routine. But it’s especially important for people with bipolar disorder since poor sleep can trigger mood episodes, according to Dr. McInnis.
So, for example, if you now need to commute for work, you’ll want to think about how this will affect your sleep habits and adjust your schedule in advance if possible, says David J. Miklowitz2, Ph.D., director of the Maxy Gray Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Even if you’re being told you’ve got to be at work at 7:30 a.m., you’ve got to ease into it,” he tells SELF. For example, if you currently wake up at 8:30 a.m. but need to start getting up at 7 a.m. next month, try adjusting your sleep and wake times 15 minutes earlier now. Once you’re used to that schedule, you might want to move your sleep and wake times back another 15 minutes (and continue doing so until you reach your desired time). Slowly transitioning to your new schedule can feel easier than suddenly waking up two hours earlier one day.
2. Take time to recharge throughout the day whenever you can.
“I always emphasize the importance of personal time and rest,” Dr. McInnis tells SELF, pointing out that many people with bipolar disorder say they feel zapped at the end of the night because managing their emotions can take a lot of energy. Some studies3 show that people with bipolar disorder react more strongly to positive and negative experiences.
It’s not true for everyone, of course, but if you find you react strongly to big experiences, then perhaps even dealing with common frustrations like sitting in traffic or rushing to catch a train may trigger anger or anxiety that can be really emotionally tiring. If you can, Dr. McInnis recommends taking 5 or 10 minutes for yourself when you get to work before tackling any assignments or meetings. You can use this time to practice deep breathing, listen to music, or do anything else that you find calming, he says. Additionally, it might be helpful to plan several breaks throughout the day if you can to decompress.
3. Set limits if you need them.
Going from social distancing to seeing friends five days a week can be overwhelming and even be too stimulating for people prone to manic episodes, especially if they aren’t on a treatment plan. Dr. Miklowitz recommends taking things a bit more slowly if you’re concerned about feeling overwhelmed. “Walk in bit by bit instead of diving in,” he says.
In case you need it, here’s your reminder that it’s perfectly okay to choose your activities with your mental health in mind. If meeting friends one-on-one for dinner is a better fit for you than large events—for whatever reason, bipolar-disorder-related or not—you’re allowed to set those boundaries. Or if you’re worried about doing too many things in one week—maybe you’re concerned about how it might interfere with your schedule or that you’ll become overstimulated—you may want to limit how many events you add to your calendar. There is no single plan that works for everyone, and you may be perfectly comfortable with (or even benefit from) going to large gatherings or seeing friends often after work. Given that COVID-19 delta cases are spreading throughout the U.S., you may be worried about getting sick even if you have been vaccinated; if so, consider wearing a mask indoors and being cautious in public settings when you can to be extra safe.
For some, working in an office may come with added social engagements, like the pressure to go out to lunch with your coworkers every day. Dr. Miklowitz says it’s a good idea to set boundaries early on if you need to by saying something like, “I’m still getting used to being back at work and am going to pass this time.” Everyone’s limits are different, and the way you approach this will vary depending on your comfort level and needs.
4. Create a well-being plan.
If you have a therapist or psychiatrist, it can be helpful to work with them to develop a well-being plan. Together you can talk through how to transition back to work and socializing with your mental health and wellness in mind. “Some people might need higher doses [of medication] when they go back to work, then they can taper it off when they’re used to the work setting,” Dr. Miklowitz says.
Additionally, the plan would include being extra aware of your personal triggers, such as not sleeping enough. It’s also helpful to include warning signs that happen before a mood episode, like if you start speaking very quickly, as well as what steps you would take if any of these signs occur.
It’s a good idea to share this plan with someone you trust and tell them how you’d like support if they spot some of your warning signs. “Do you want them to take you out to eat, or do you want them to go with you to a doctor’s appointment? Sometimes when people are depressed it can feel like a gargantuan task just to get to a pharmacy,” Dr. Miklowitz says.
5. Have regular check-ins with your bipolar disorder support system.
It can be reassuring to have weekly plans with a close friend or family member who knows you well, Dr. McInnis says. In addition to noticing subtle behavior changes, your loved ones can help you feel supported and validated. In fact, people with bipolar disorder who talked to a family member during a two-week period felt more in control of their condition, according to a 2019 study published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal4.
If you can, Dr. Miklowitz recommends seeing a therapist regularly who can support and help you work through anxiety, depression, and any other feelings that may arise during the transition. He encourages those who are looking for a therapist to schedule a consultation to learn more about the clinician’s background with bipolar disorder. If you have medical insurance, your insurance provider will have a list of therapists in your area. Or you can check websites like Open Path for providers with sliding scale fees. Alternatively, Dr. Miklowitz says, support groups are a great resource because you can learn how people with similar challenges are coping right now. The National Alliance of Mental Illness has support groups throughout the U.S., and your local affiliate may be able to put you in touch with groups for people with bipolar disorder in your area.
We’ve experienced a lot of uncertainty since 2020, and it’s okay if you’re not ready to jump back into your pre-pandemic lifestyle. “Set limits and create an environment where you feel like you can function,” Dr. Miklowitz says.
- University of Michigan Medicine, Melvin McInnis, M.D.
- Semel Institute, UCLA, David Miklowitz, Ph.D.
- Frontiers in Bioscience-Elite, Emotional Dysfunction as a Marker of Bipolar Disorders
- Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, The Relationship Between Social Support and Personal Recovery in Bipolar Disorder.
- 5 People With Bipolar Disorder Discuss Their ‘Re-Entry Anxiety’
- How I Manage Work and Bipolar Disorder During the Pandemic
- 10 Ways to Manage Anxiety When You Have Bipolar Disorder