Stress, Pressure, and Bipolar Disorder: A Perilous Mix

Last Updated: 4 Nov 2020
17 Comments
Views

Stress is a normal part of life. When living with bipolar disorder, stress can cause problems that may increase symptoms and make life more difficult.

stress bipolar disorder symptom management


Stress. You can’t get away from it. Relationships. Work. Physical health. The jerk that just cut you off on the highway. It’s everywhere. If you’re like me, stress comes from all sides.

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder 35 years ago, even the slightest amount of stress was enough to exacerbate my symptoms. Not to mention that I was abusing drugs and alcohol like a character from a Cheech & Chong movie (and in a strange way there were times I looked like Cheech). I thought I was managing my stress well, however, the reality was the more I abused chemicals, the worse I got.

As time went on, things did improve, albeit slowly. The first thing I had to do was to stop using. Everything. Drugs, alcohol, and everything in-between. In the spirit of full disclosure, I do have a co-occurring addiction disorder so abstinence was a must for me to stabilize. But with time my condition did improve; enough that I was able to become employed.

But, uh-oh: When I entered into the “real world” of work, there were many significant stressors I had to contend with. At this time, I was employed as an Alcoholism Counselor at a Buffalo-area hospital. This is when I had to face challenges such as working with clients who, many times, did not want to be in treatment, or regulatory standards that tied into Medicaid payment, hospital accreditation, and the Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services for New York State. On top of this, I was newly married with a child on the way. Finally, my mother was in poor health and required extra care.

I think you get the idea. I’m just like anyone else who has to, as the saying goes, “live life on life’s terms.” But unlike in my former life, I didn’t have the convenience of smoking a joint or grabbing a beer to self-medicate. Conversely, I was still in therapy and was in the care of a psychiatrist. I also attended a drug recovery support group which has been the cornerstone of my personal self-care program.

So, back to stress. In the course of my life with bipolar disorder, I have had to learn to deal with stress and pressure. There have been times when I felt like I couldn’t take anymore; like if just one more thing was added, I’d crumple like a piece of tissue paper. However, in many ways, I’d describe my ability to withstand stress and pressure like lifting weights. I didn’t start with the 100-pound dumbbell. It began with the 5-pounders. By incorporating the basic coping skills such as developing a healthy support system, incorporating exercise, practicing my faith, and developing proper sleep patterns, I started to realize that I could withstand more stress as time went on. And this is exactly what happened.

One prime example is my behavior at work. Years ago, when I was under the gun and things were tough, I’d want to run. It was my way of not wanting to deal with the stress associated with my job. This resulted in several changes in employment and even a total career change into a different profession than addictions counseling. But one thing that has helped this immensely is doing work that I love. I am a passionate advocate and mental health educator. I also perform a number of administrative functions. While this work can be very stressful at times, the pleasure I derive from it counters any stress I experience.

Another thing that has been affected by stress and pressure has been my personal relationships. I vividly recall several times when I blew up with my family. One occasion was when my family was the primary caregiver for my ailing father. We were preparing to go to church and we were going to take my dad to his church first, as was our custom. It was a stormy winter day, and I got stuck in a snowbank in my driveway. I totally lost it. This is completely unlike my usual behavior. But the stress got the best of me. Fortunately, I was able to connect with a couple of my friends from my recovery program who served as a shoulder to cry on (literally).

In the end, we all have our particular sensitivities to stress. Some can handle more than others. And, unfortunately, for some, the stress can be a major trigger for a manic or depressive episode. But hopefully, if the proper stress management tools are employed, then the effects of any pressure that is experienced can be minimized.


Originally posted October 19, 2017.

About the author
Karl Shallowhorn is the Education Program Coordinator for the Community Health Center of Buffalo. Karl has been living with bipolar disorder since 1981. He is a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor and has worked in both the addictions and mental health fields for over 17 years. Karl is the author of Working on Wellness: A Practical Guide to Mental Health. He is a certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor and also works as a mental health consultant for organizations across New York State. Karl has provided a variety of mental health-related seminars and workshops for conferences, schools and businesses on the local, state and national levels. Karl serves on the Board of Directors for the Mental Health Association in New York State, the Mental Health Association of Erie County, the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network, as well as the Erie County Mental Hygiene Community Services Boardand the WNED/WBFO Mental Health Advisory Council. Karl has received numerous awards for his advocacy efforts in his professional career.
17 Comments
  1. I’m finding that every now & then I have to scale back on what I’m doing in order to get a grasp on things before I slip I to mania or depression. This has meant finding my voice and letting my family know that as much as they want to help me move forward, sometimes they need to respect my slower, low pressure ways of doing things.

  2. Thank you for being so honest about your journey. It takes courage and hard work each day. Good for you for analyzing and being positive. Wishing you the best.
    Karin

  3. I agree with at least one comment that this was not so helpful other than being a story some if not most of us can relate to at certain times. It IS inspirational, bravo for you. I would strongly suggest that this be rewritten to include tangible methods, techniques and therapeutics that actually helped you, otherwise it becomes a paean of praise to and for only yourself. Thanks for writing it at all, however. This in itself was clearly cathartic.

  4. This just landed in my inbox…and Boy! Did I need it!
    I’m having to learn boundaries after losing my elderly parent to COVID. I just started back to work after caring for them the last 9 months. My relationships with my managers, friends and various people have changed after going through that life-alternating nightmare.
    I’ve been managing my bipolar without support…know that I need it but I’m trying to take care of myself holistically before my insurance kicks in. I’m actually proud of myself for managing…not that it’s been graceful, but my belief in my Higher Power has kept me from winding up inpatient. I’m really watching my vices-intake and have opened up to a couple of trusted friends to check me when I start sounding crazy.

    Not that I haven’t lost it on more than one occasion…

  5. Sounds like my daughter! she says I don’t know how she is feeling. I try the best I can , but it’s difficult when I don’t experience what she experiences.

Load More Comments

Leave a Reply

Please do not use your full name, as it will be displayed. Your email address will not be published.

Related