Living with bipolar and working toward a graduate degree in public health has given me a unique perspective on this past year. My anxiety was amplified to the extreme, and learning to live through these challenging times required me to reprioritize self-care and close relationships.
From Dubious to Facing Sudden Danger
As a graduate student of public health, I had taken a college course on environmental health during the Fall 2019 semester. I remember sitting through a lecture on worldwide health crises and seriously doubting that such a disaster would ever happen.
We talked about all the stages of working with a public health threat, but I found my attention wandering to other things: it was almost winter break, final exams were rapidly approaching, and I could see snow falling outside of the classroom windows.
I never would have guessed that, come March the following year, my life would look so different. Before long, I found myself glued to the television, learning that we were dealing with the most serious and dramatic world health crisis in over a century.
Bipolar, Anxiety, and Coping with Unexpected Changes
News of this danger came upon us so abruptly that I immediately lost my grounding. Each day felt more frightening the last, full of physical distancing and the constant threat of becoming seriously ill.
Everything seemed to change overnight. Soon, we would no longer be dining in restaurants, watching films in movie theaters, or sharing meals with friends.
As our daily lives were upended and hot spots like Italy and New York saw unimaginably high numbers of lives lost, I wasn’t entirely sure that I had the strength and courage to keep hanging on. I knew that it was only a matter of time before this threat came to my little corner of the world. And I had never been more terrified in my life.
Everyone is vulnerable to this infectious disease that can be so cruel, and many people are experiencing high stress and trauma. I have wondered, though, whether living through this public health crisis has been more challenging for me because of my bipolar—because I am vulnerable to both anxiety and shifts in my moods.
Living with a mood disorder, I know that I have been tested in one of the worst ways possible, and I will do my best to keep reevaluating how I am coping with both my bipolar symptoms and my anxiety.
That said, weathering this turbulent time the “bipolar way” has prompted me to reexamine my life and determine what is most important to me. It has given me the opportunity to recognize both the complexities of my life and the true value of my close relationships.
Instead of fixating on the chances that I might contract the illness, I’m choosing to focus on all the ways this crisis is teaching me how to live.
There Is More to My Life Than Bipolar Disorder
Sometimes, during a manic or depressive episode, it is hard for me to fight my way out of the vortex of those symptoms. My life revolves around the task of swallowing pills and doing everything I can to take care of myself, to ease my way out of the episode. I hate living from mood to mood, and I treasure every break from the constant cycling.
The news of this highly infectious disease abruptly averted my focus away from my own bipolar symptoms. Suddenly, survival became my only goal. As I watched the constant news reports, I felt grateful for each day that I was still alive and healthy. My medications and other self-care habits were an essential part of my daily routine, but I wanted to spend more time on the things in my life that truly brought me joy.
Discovering New Ways to Cope with My Distress
Desperate times called for desperate measures, and this turbulent time provided me the impetus to build up an array of coping skills I can call on in any time of need. As the year progressed, I was forever waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the potential for sudden danger required and enabled me to find better ways of navigating my triggers and stressors.
First, because of my anxiety, I started fleeing from the television and those constant reports of imminent threats. Limiting my time spent in front of the TV or online allowed me to focus on what was most important to me. I also used the mindfulness and distress-tolerance techniques I learned in DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) classes to ground me in the present moment. I distracted myself by moving from my online classes to various writing projects and taking my dog out for frequent walks
#2 Prioritizing My Personal Relationships
Historically, when I’ve been caught up in school and other projects, I have had a tendency to neglect my relationships. During this health crisis, I was able to see how fragile life is and how grateful I am to have these people in my life.
Because I knew that people—a lot of people—were and are not able to survive this infectious illness, it had suddenly become essential that I let everyone know just how much I cared about them and that, if they needed support, I would always be there to listen or help in any way.
I have since made it my business to keep up with my friends on Facebook and ensure that they are not feeling entirely overwhelmed with stress and anxiety from our current situation. My family is also especially important to me, and I am continuing to nourish these relationships.
#4 Using Education & Goal-Setting as Healthy Distractions
It would have been easy to stop pushing forward in my classes and just concentrate of the day-to-day task of surviving. But I am more motivated than ever—and now I am working on my graduate degree. Distraction is a key skill in working through my bipolar symptoms and anxiety. And each assignment I complete or paper I write transports me away from the real world. My hope is that when I graduate, I will be able to use the skills I have learned to help in my chosen profession.
#5 Expressing Gratitude for the Simple Things in Life
I have been better able to appreciate the little things in my daily life—like Netflix, Hulu, good books, and warm showers. The “little things” also help me cope with my moods and anxiety. I enjoy watching sitcoms and comedies when I feel the anxiety “butterflies” creeping in. I like the way lotion and perfume smells, as I pamper myself in small ways. And there’s nothing like turning up the volume on my playlist.
#6 Enhancing My Self-Awareness & Dedication to Persevere
I have also become so much more self-aware about what I am experiencing and how I can always do something to improve my mood in the moment. I have spent years developing these strategies, but with the threat of a global health crisis, they are even more important. I am now better able to prioritize putting my coping skills to use and learning how to make it through any mood or anxiety state.
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