6 Basic Steps to Manage Stress with Bipolar

Last Updated: 4 Nov 2020

The last few weeks were particularly stressful, with a lot of expectations and to-dos. To manage my moods during high-pressure times like these, I follow clear-cut habits that let me complete my responsibilities while maintaining my well-being.

A woman of color writes on a sticky note attached to a chalkboard. She is planning.

During the last week or so, I have struggled to keep my moods balanced while in the middle of the end-of-semester whirlwind. I quickly became anxious just thinking about all the projects and exams I had to take. I felt so overwhelmed that I wasn’t sure everything would ever get done by the time grades were due. But I was able to successfully use some of those coping skills I have learned in therapy over the years to get through this high-stress time. Now I’d like to share some of them with you.

#1 Break Things Down

Toward the end of the semester, I made a list of everything I needed to do before winter break started. Then, as I took each class, attended each meeting with a professor, and sent each e-mail message that I had to write, I highlighted them. When I am in a bipolar episode, or at least experiencing some symptoms, thoughts move around in my head so fast that I have to write everything down on paper. I suggest that you try this, too. Break things down into the tiniest pieces possible, then rejoice when you complete each task, knowing that you are getting closer and closer to reaching your goal.

#2 Take a Break

If I didn’t stop studying or writing a paper, at least for a little bit, the pressure would have really gotten to me. So, every once in awhile, I stopped for a short break and either got in bed and flipped through a book, or took a shower. Basically, I incorporated some “me time” into my day. Then, I was better able to return to a study guide or a stack of journal articles with a fresh perspective.

#3 Go to Sleep

As you probably know, one of the most important aspects of dealing with bipolar symptoms is self-care and sleep. Even though I had a lot of reading to get through, I made sure that I slept at least eight hours a night. When I’m stressed out and I have a lot to do, sleep is usually the first thing that goes. So now I stay on top of my sleep schedule. It helps me to take my nighttime medications as early as possible, sleep in a very dark room, and listen to some calming or familiar music.

#4 Prioritize Your Health

I also made sure that I took my medication as prescribed because I didn’t want to deal with bipolar symptoms while I was trying to study and take care of business. My medications tend to make me groggy at least some of the time, so it was important to also ensure that I was getting the sleep I needed. I also tried to limit my food cravings as much as possible (whenever finals season approaches, I suddenly reach for chips and chocolate).

#5 Take a Walk

By the time December rolls around, it’s freezing where I live, but my dog still needs to go for regular walks. When I walk at a brisk pace while listening to some of my favorite songs on my smartphone, those endorphins help me to deal with the stress. Walking also helps me bond with my dog, which probably helps me cope better in the long run, too.

#6 Talk to Someone

Venting about stress can also help. And it can take many forms. You can talk about your stress with your friends or family members, or seek help with a psychotherapist. I have learned some pretty handy coping skills that get me through the tough moments, especially dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). After my first statistics test of the semester, I was a mess; but, luckily, I had a therapist who listened to me perseverate on all the questions I got wrong. I also have a circle of supportive people who will listen to me complain about my frustration with a professor or how I have a ten-page paper and three final exams all due in one week. You can lean on your loved ones in times of stress, then repay the favor later, when they need a listening ear, too.

Originally posted January 24, 2020.

About the author
Elizabeth Drucker is a writer living in Chicago. She has a BA in sociology from the University of Arizona and a master's degree in educational leadership & policy analysis (ELPA) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  1. Good strategies, the one I needed was about breaking things down into their smallest parts. I have several outside projects that have been waiting for my attention till this Spring. So I’m now looking at breaking them down and getting them done… thanks

  2. I like Dr Michael Michael Greger’s way of eating. Found at Nutritionfacts.org and in his book “How Not to Die”

  3. How do you limit your food cravings? That’s a battle I seem to loose every time and it’s affecting my mental and physical health.

    1. My son deals with this constantly with his schizoaffective disorder bipolar type illness and what has helped is regular exercise. By that I mean set a half hour or 45 minute non negotiable time for some type of exercise or movement or sport. Also keep busy since down time leads to eating but the biggest factor is diet. Please check out the book The Bipolar Diet which is available on Amazon. From what I read in the book it is a sensible diet plan that incorporates fiber to combat the constant cravings. Good luck!

  4. Great article, Elizabeth. Sleep is the first to go when I’m under stress, and I find it very difficult to get the sleep I need. I’ve tried soothing activities such as reading and music, but to no avail.

  5. I can get lost watching TV in the evenings. Then I have to read to get to sleep so it can end up being quite late. I know I need more sleep. Just love that evening time alone.

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