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Life Design

Living with Bipolar Disorder: How to handle a depressive episode

living with bipolar disorder

Today’s post isn’t going to seem relevant to everyone. But as most of my regular readers know, I try my best to provide a very transparent look into my pursuit towards 360 balance. That means I’m also very upfront with my mental health.

Your mental health has a big impact on your success in life. It determines your ability to achieve your goals. In that sense, I think this post will benefit anyone who has ever felt stuck in a rut.

It’s also very important for me to talk about it, because I know how scary and hopeless it may feel to be living with bipolar disorder. All the data seems stacked up against you and it’s easy to lose hope, but the reality is, there’s a lot of bipolar people living amazing lives.

It’s hard to believe it if there aren’t positive examples available, so I’m hoping I can be that positive example for anyone who needs it.

Let me share my knowledge and experience on living with bipolar disorder today, in hopes it’ll help at least one person in the world.

What is Bipolar disorder?

living with bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is a mental condition where the person will experience periods of elevated or depressed moods. There is slight evidence that the condition is hereditary in nature, but there isn’t enough evidence to be entirely sure. What scientist do know is the condition derives from a chemical imbalance in the brain. What causes the imbalance is not well understood.

There are two types of Bipolar disorder, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is distinguished by extreme highs called mania with also severe lows called depression. Type 2 is distinguished more by it’s periods of depression. Mania is also not present but instead a more subtle form of it occurs, called hypomania.

These different mood states are called episodes.

Apart from the types, there are also different cycle patterns. The type tells you what you are potentially able to experience, but the cycle pattern differentiates how you experience it.

A cycling pattern is marked by frequency and duration. That means how often an episode occurs and for how long it lasts. Although there are two types of bipolar disorder, there are no set cycling patterns. Everyone will have their own cycling pattern and the cycling pattern can change overtime.

You could cycle once a year or a few times a years, or even cycle several times in a day. Bipolar disorder is a spectrum and everyone with the condition will find themselves somewhere on it.

Bipolar disorder occurs quite evenly among the two genders, but there is a very clear discrepancy among the genders between the two types. Type 1 occurs more in males and type 2 in females.

Why do episodes occur?

As mentioned a little earlier, bipolar disorder is marked by chemical imbalances in the brain. We don’t know why these imbalances happen. However, we do know external environmental triggers can kick start an episode to occur.

The best way I can explain it to you is, the chemical imbalance is present regardless if the person is experiencing an episode or not. But for an episode to occur, you most likely need a trigger to start it. Triggers can be anything and they are unique to the person with bipolar.

Common triggers most people with bipolar disorder are effected by include, but not limited to:

  • Amount of sleep and sleep quality
  • Seasonal changes
  • Hormonal changes such as pregnancy and menopause
  • Prolonged periods of stress
  • Alcohol and drug misuse
  • Big life events
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The basics to living with bipolar disorder

Now you understand the basics of bipolar disorder, it’s important to know what type you have, what your cycling pattern is and what your triggers are. It’ll be very hard to manage and deal with your episodes effectively without knowing the above.

You probably already know the answers to the above if you received medical help already. But if you haven’t then seeking professional help will help. Professional medical help will allow you to confidently identify your condition as well as it’s traits.

My personal story of living with bipolar disorder

I have bipolar type 2 and I currently cycle irregularly in short bursts that last anywhere from a few days to a week. I typically experience several short depressed episodes in a given year and the same amount of hypomania. Out of the total episodes in a year, there will be one or two that are slightly more pronounced than the rest.

Another characteristic about my bipolar is I tend to have to experience both depression and hypomania one after another before going back to a neutral state.

living with bipolar disorder
…yes, it’s not a pretty graphic, but it is content that explains my point perfectly.

That’s important to know, because it allows me to not only manage my current episode but also prepare for the episode that will happen soon after.

I am currently not on any medication and rely on 100% self management to manage my condition. I would confidently say this has been working for me for the past 6 years so far. My condition has improved in all areas, from the frequency episodes occur, the duration of each episode and even the intensity of the episodes have all minimised.

But of course, I still cycle and will continue to for as long as I live.

The point is, the more you understand yourself, the easier it becomes to minimise the potential damage and live a fulfilling life.

My experience with depression

With the luxury of retrospect, I can safely say my bipolar disorder began appearing at around eleven years of age. And from that point, all the way up to the age of 19, the year I got diagnosed, it was a slow but gradual downhill progression.

My episodes got longer, more frequent, more intense and at one point I was in a mixed state. I think if I had known I had bipolar disorder, I would have been able to avoid the worse of it. But unfortunately like most people who get professionally diagnosed.

You need to hit rock bottom to seek professional help.

living with bipolar disorder
From suicidal to being some-what athletic…who would have thought 🙂

Don’t feel ashamed if you feel hopeless, different, alienated and or suicidal. As real and valid as these thoughts feel, they’re also not the only things you are capable of feeling and thinking.

Don’t be afraid to go to your doctor and simply tell them how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking.

I actually recently had a depressed episode last week. It was more severe than my usual ones and it kept gradually building up over a week or two. I was the most unmotivated I have felts in years at the height of it. My appetite was non-existent and my sleep was all over the place.

My focus was horribly low and I preferred spending entire days doing activities that require minimal mental effort. Think, binge watching YouTube video, scrolling internet memes and reading article after article on topics that aren’t useful to me.

Or at it’s worse during this episode, I was just thinking. Stoning out without being stoned.

Prior to that week I had slight hypomania with increased energy and enthusiasm. I had a hunch that what I was going through was a hypomania episode.

But I wasn’t entirely sure. It was that subtle.

So needless to say, the depression that came afterwards was a bit unexpected.

Now, before I carry on. I need to make clear that EVERYTHING is on a spectrum. This means, how you handle a I-feel-a-little-bleh episode compared to I-can’t-get-out-of-bed-for-the-whole-day is going to be different.

Anything more sever than the latter calls for immediate professional help. And if professional help is not available then seek help from someone you trust and has your best interest at heart.

The importance of attitude and perception

One of the first things that happened to me once I got diagnosed was to start reading about it. And let me tell you, the information out there is rather bleak. There’s this consistent undertone of life being a constant battle and fight.

…and the odds aren’t in your favour.

Even the scientific journals would separate the condition from the individual and make it a you vs. it sort of narrative.

That narrative isn’t helpful. I would argue, it’s actually destructive to people with bipolar disorder. The information isn’t, the way it is framed, is. If you see your condition as this horrible boogey man breathing down your neck, then it only makes sense for you to be in constant battle with it.

But it’s not a battle.

There are no winners. Just potential losers.

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And that’s the important point that most people who talk about bipolar disorder forget. It’s not about winning, because there are no winners. It’s about not losing.

No, that’s not a cynical, sad way of looking at things. It actually provides a massive amount of relief if you look at it that way. You no longer need to view your condition with contempt.

This helped me so much on my journey to improving my condition. I was no longer fighting the condition, I was learning to live with it as peacefully as possible.

My goal wasn’t to win and live life like I don’t have bipolar, but to live life with bipolar.

That shift in attitude and perception instantly improved my relationship with episodes of depression. I was no longer desperate to make it go away. I knew and felt confident that episodes were exactly that. Episodes.

They come, AND they will most definitely go. As long as you stick through it to the end.

I like to call it “riding the waves”. Just sit tight and ride them out.

I know you’re thinking this might be a rather defeatist way of approaching the matter. But I’m not telling you to be completely passive. Actually I advocate the opposite.

The importance of mindfulness

That’s where mindfulness comes into play.

Regardless on whether you are medicated or not, I don’t believe anyone can rely entirely on medication to manage their condition.

There needs to be active management from your conscious self to achieve long-term stability. What I’m talking about is mindfulness. And it applies to everyone.

Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware of yourself as well as your surroundings at all times. It’s a lot harder said than done and it’s not a quick solution. It’s also not very realistic to expect yourself to be mindful ALL THE TIME.

But, by practising mindfulness, you become more aware and sensitive towards how you’re doing. It’s this awareness that has helped me improve my condition. It makes me aware of when an episode is likely going to happen or when an episode is happening.

I’m not simply riding the waves, but also preparing for the waves and actively minimising the amount of rocking I experience. How you prepare and minimise will be unique to you.

I have mentioned on this site a few times how I have adopted lifestyle changes to do exactly that. These habits and changes came about from first becoming more mindful of myself. You learn what your triggers are, you learn what your early symptoms are and you learn all the small changes that happen. All of this knowledge helps you manage each episode better.

The most effective way to handle life with bipolar disorder is to practice mindfulness. 

How to practice mindfulness

Meditate

Practice meditation on a daily basis. Start with just 5 minutes. We’re looking for quality not quantity. 5 minutes of quality meditative practice is a lot better than unfocused sitting down for 30 minutes.

Meditation helps you clear your mind and provides you an opportunity to start from scratch once you stop. It’s a moment of clarity when you are having an episode and it’s also a great way to track your thoughts in general.

Living with bipolar disorder
Try this guided meditation app. They have free modules which are great for beginners.

Because to clear your mind of thought, you must be aware of your thoughts.

Start a mood chart

A mood chart is a simple and popular way to track how you feel over a period of time. It’s a very simple concept and it’s very visual, which makes it easy to comprehend. You assign your mood to a number on a scale, and mark it on a graph to see the changes over time. Patterns may appear, or they may not.

I personal found a mood chart had limited benefits, but I recommend it for anyone trying to practice mindfulness because it forces you to ask yourself how you feel everyday. Just a moment in a day to stop, pause and be aware of how you feel.

Provide yourself with routines in your day

living with bipolar disorder

It can me a morning routine, afternoon routine or an evening routine. It could even be a smaller more detailed routine such as how you approach lunch or household chores. It doesn’t matter, the importance is having a routine in the first place.

A routine lets you do tasks without much active thought in how to do it, which leaves you more mental ability to comprehend what you’re thinking and feeling while doing it. This is a very easy and practical way of practicing mindfulness.

Learn to talk to yourself

I know, this is going to sound weird. But talking to yourself is normal, and also great in getting you to start asking yourself questions.

Questions like:

How did that make me feel? Why do I feel this way? Am I acting a little out of character right now? Is that decision I just made impulsive? Is how I’m feeling right now inline with what is actually happening? etc etc

Learning how to talk to yourself and asking the right questions will help you be more mindful to your present situation. All this asking and answering also helps you foresee and predict yourself overtime.

What to do right now

But mindfulness doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not something you can obtain and then leave. Mindfulness is developed and nurtured continuously.

That means, you can begin practicing mindfulness now and you’ll unfortunately still be riding the waves without any control for a while.

So what to do in the mean time?

Be kind to yourself. Strap yourself down securely to the boat and ride the waves out. Don’t feel guilty if you’re having a bad day. Don’t feel ashamed if you can’t get out of bed. Don’t put any personal blame on yourself.

It’s not you. It’s just the waves.

And if the waves get too much, then it’s always okay to call for help.

Other resources you should check out:

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