In these trying times, I have experienced emotional highs and lows. It has been helpful for me to try to distinguish reasonable or “normal” mood shifts from signs that I should start to worry about my well-being and bipolar symptoms.
Untangling Our “New Normal,” My Own “Normal,” & Bipolar Red Flags
I have been sheltering in place for two months, only traveling outside of my home for essential activities. Sound familiar? I think most of us can relate to this situation. In following these shelter-in-place and physical-distancing guidelines, I have experienced a variety of emotional highs and lows.
It has been helpful for me to try to distinguish what would be considered “normal” up-and-down emotions in these times versus signs that maybe I need to take action to look after my bipolar symptoms and mental health.
During my first week of sheltering in place, I felt pretty emotionally stable. I wasn’t able to comprehend the enormity and severity of our global situation. It seemed like a problem that was not an immediate threat to myself or my family. I thought that after two weeks, everything would be back to normal.
But, as week 1 turned into week 2, 3, 4, and more, there seemed to be no end in sight. During this time, I have struggled with feelings of loneliness, isolation, disrupted routines, and varying moods. I cried more easily, my sleep routine changed, and my daily routine was upended. I experienced grief due to the suffering and loss of life around us. My anxiety bordered on paranoia, surrounding the idea of my loved ones or me falling ill.
Mood Instability & Panic over an Impending Depressive Episode
I immediately contacted my therapist. I scheduled my first telemedicine visit
and connected with her quickly. When I spoke with her, I tearfully listed all
my symptoms and voiced my fear that I was entering into another depressive
episode. What she said to me in response changed everything.
She reassured me that we are in an unprecedented time and almost EVERYONE she had been working with was struggling. Fears, anxiety, insomnia, poor motivation, grief, low mood are all very common during this time. She emphasized the need for self-compassion, but, at the same time, my therapist did not minimize my symptoms. We discussed the importance of distinguishing normal responses to the crisis from symptoms of a bipolar episode. A challenging task, but a very important one.
Relief & Shared Experiences
My reaction to our session was a profound sense of relief. Relief that the symptoms I was experiencing were not necessarily signs of another impending depression but, most likely, they were a reaction to a situation we have never encountered before in our lifetime. A collective human reaction that almost everyone was having. My relief came from feeling that I am not alone. We are all having difficulties trying to navigate life amidst this health crisis. Not that I want everyone to struggle, of course, but the fact is we are.
can feel these fears and emotions and disruptions to our lives together.
We can talk about them, cry about them, worry about them openly. Right now, it
is okay to not be 100%. It’s not just me. Knowing this eased my panic. With an
illness like bipolar disorder—which can make us feel so alone, so misunderstood—it
was comforting to know that the whole world understands.
Recognition of Vulnerabilities with Bipolar
I also needed to recognize that those of us with bipolar disorder are more vulnerable during this pandemic. I rely strongly on my routines to keep my mood stabilized. I need consistent sleep. I have learned that healthy eating, exercise, and connection with others keeps me healthy mentally. All of those things have been disrupted during this time period. A disruption to all of those factors puts me in jeopardy of having a mood episode. So, what now?
Back to Basics for Bipolar Stability
have found what works for me is breaking it down to the basics. This is my
How is my sleep?
How is my nutrition?
Am I drinking enough water?
How is my activity level?
Am I connecting with others?
first, I thought this seemed ridiculous, and I was embarrassed that I had to
get down to such simple questions. It took me about two weeks to adopt a plan.
But, after two weeks of struggling with these foundation-building factors for
wellness, I swallowed my pride and accepted that this is where I’m at.
No-Shame Survival Mode
think of it like survival mode.
First, sleep: What time is the latest I should stay up? What time is the latest I should sleep in? If I get too far off the schedule, I readjust. If I can’t, I take note.
Next is food and water: Am I eating enough, or too much? Am I staying hydrated? I try to eat my usual healthy diet and my normal water intake. Again, if I’m off the mark, I try to rebalance.
Last, I also attempt to get in some form of activity (outdoors is a bonus), and some form of connection with others (usually virtual).
I been perfect in adhering to this plan? Not even close!
I try for a better day tomorrow and remind myself of the importance of self-compassion. Also, if things are seeming too far off and I’m not able to get back on track, I ask for help. I use FaceTime or Zoom to connect with my family, my therapist, and my fellow AA members. Remember, connection!
also keep a close watch on the presence and level of suicidal thoughts, and I do
not hesitate to discuss them with my therapist.
Remember: Living with Bipolar Fosters Resilience
as restrictions are lifting, the current world health crisis seems far from
over, and we hear talk of a “new normal” to come. But no matter what the future
holds, I believe we will overcome. Those of us with bipolar disorder are
some of the most resilient people out there.
So, please, remain hopeful, practice self-compassion, ask for help, and know that you are never alone.
Laura Fisher attended the University of Montana, where she received her BA in biology in 2004 and doctorate of physical therapy in 2007. She lived and worked in Seattle for six years as a physical therapist in a variety of treatment settings. She recently moved back to her hometown of Billings, Montana, where she lives with her two dogs and family nearby. Laura has lived with bipolar I disorder for 19 years. She is currently working as a Peer Support Specialist. Laura also enjoys her work in physical therapy, private caregiving, writing, and dog sitting. Laura hopes to share her own experience with bipolar disorder to provide hope for those struggling with this illness.
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