When pleasurable pastimes like shopping, gaming, or online socializing cross the line from enjoyable to excessive, it may be time to tame your overindulgences.
Going on a shopping spree. Binge-watching the latest fad series. Spending hours on a video game. Religiously checking Facebook.
Truth is, most people can say they’ve been there, done that. Those things can be fun—even comforting, especially if the time feels like a deserved escape. Yet, because bipolar is a condition of extremes, it can be tempting for some leisurely activities to become too much of a good thing.
How to tell when a certain pleasure has morphed into a problem?
Take stock. Are you shirking responsibilities? Shying away from previous interests—even a relationship? Maybe friends and family are starting to question your behavior. Or there’s a directly related disruption to your sleep/wake cycle, which can trigger an episode.
Whether it’s shopping, streaming, gaming, or online socializing—or any other enticing distraction—the goal is to retain a sense of agency.
“It’s important to recognize that the way you construct your lifestyle has a big impact on you and your bipolar disorder,” says Caroline R. Baltzer, PhD, a clinical psychologist and Harvard Medical School lecturer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Anything that’s ‘too much of a good thing’ can [cause trouble]. People sometimes want to say, ‘This is just a bad habit I have,’ but neurochemically it’s on the same level as addiction.
“The first thing someone needs to do is recognize the addictive behavior for what it is,” she continues. “Only then can the person take steps to deal with it.”
One way to tame overindulgence is to become familiar with “urge surfing,” a technique often used in addiction recovery. To avoid acting on potentially destructive impulses, some imagine how surfers must trust that overwhelmingly large ocean waves will get smaller toward shore.
“Most times people engage in behavior before an urge peaks and comes down on its own,” says Charlie Coté, a licensed clinical social worker in Rochester, New York. “They go to an avoidance behavior that inadvertently starts to reinforce the compulsive behavior. If they can learn to have a kind of curiosity about the urge, to step back a little bit and notice the sensations, thoughts, and feelings about it, they can ride it out.”
Like anything, practice is key. Adds Coté: “If you don’t practice this, it’s going to be harder to do.”
Shopping makes Tracey, from Durham, North Carolina, feel good. Raised by a single mom on a tight budget, Tracey was embarrassed to have only three outfits from elementary school through her sophomore year of high school, when she was old enough to get a job. She stretched her wardrobe as best she could by mixing and matching garments.
“Now I have enough clothes for each season that I could probably wear a different outfit every day by mixing and matching,” says Tracey, now 59. “I guess I still don’t feel worthy enough, especially with bipolar, so I’m always trying to make sure I look better and better.”
She heads to clothing stores more often when her bipolar II symptoms prompt her impulsive behavior.
If Tracey adores a particular shirt, she’ll buy a second one in case something happens to the first. Or if she finds a cardigan sweater in four shades of pink, she’ll buy all four shades. She keeps pants and shoes upstairs in the master bedroom closet, and everything else downstairs, in a closet in a spare bedroom.
Her husband of 31 years, a former Navy man, has always been supportive, but Tracey didn’t understand the impact of her shopping until he finally shared how worried he was about her purchases when he was away. It was a pivotal moment that she now keeps in the back of her mind when she wants to spend more than she should.
Even so, the challenges have continued. About a decade ago, at least 20 years after her husband’s confession of sorts, Tracey’s sprees led to bankruptcy; and she was still dealing with hefty overdrafts just last year.
Fortunately that all changed with a recent inheritance that allowed her to clean up her debt and start again. Realizing that this is a second chance at living fiscally—and emotionally—responsible, Tracey works regularly with a therapist to keep her desire for purchasing in check, which includes immediately throwing out mail-order catalogs and learning to budget. “I love to travel, so I tell myself if I spend $300 on clothes, that takes money out of my travel fund. Every day it’s a work in progress.”
Selah of Las Vegas, Nevada, recognizes when she’s pushing healthy shopping boundaries: “I know when I start hiding it, when I’m afraid to tell my husband about my purchases.”
She uses a joint debit card to buy what the family needs, and cash or an Amazon gift card she props up by completing online surveys—what she calls “her own private slush fund”—for discretionary items she wants.
“It’s a kind of drip, drip, drip,” Selah says of those discretionary purchases, which tend to be in the self-help realm and usually don’t have big individual price tags (unlike the broken-down singlewide trailer she purchased long ago during a particularly difficult manic phase).
“I kind of justify what I buy, because it’s not like I’m wasting money on cigars or booze, but it’s still a waste,” she continues. “It has still affected my retirement and my ability to buy a home. I’m paying off debts, but my debt-to-income ratio means I can’t get a mortgage.”
Selah says reading Your Money Or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, helped her see the value of wanting less, given her history as “a borderline hoarder.” And she belongs to an online forum about frugality.
“I get external support from people reminding me to stay on the straight and narrow,” she says. “I don’t have this completely under control, but it’s a lot better than it was.”
This past May, the World Health Organization declared video game addiction a mental health condition. Yet research suggests that playing video games does have some benefits, such as improving attention, honing skills needed for movement as well as depth and distance perception, and even increasing empathy.
Anthony Bean, PhD, a licensed clinical depth psychologist, video game researcher, and director of a nonprofit mental health clinic in Fort Worth, Texas, studies the immersive effects that video games have on people—and on family dynamics. He uses characters in real-time strategy games to help clients articulate what they may not be able to with their own words.
“A lot more video games have been going this route because we realize we like choices to play out different parts of ourselves,” says Bean, author most recently of The Psychology of Zelda: Linking Our World to the Legend of Zelda Series. “And there’s some emotional regulation from it as well. Someone might say, ‘I was feeling so overwhelmed, but then my character did this, and maybe I should do something similar.’”
Many video games have social benefits. Janice, of Cleveland, Ohio, is co-leader of an in-game social club that’s part of a popular online casino game. The role is fun, but it comes with a sense of responsibility to show up for scheduled group gaming events. The more rewards the group earns, the higher it moves up the leaderboard.
As a result, she plays at least eight hours a day.
The first time she played the game, she spent much more than she expected.
She told herself, “Oh well. This is fun and it’s OK if I spend some money on myself. Next month I’ll just pay it back.”
That didn’t happen. In fact, Janice, who plays more when she’s in a manic state, finds herself borrowing from her savings, which she hopes will lead to piles of electronic chips or coins.
“I’m buying fake money so I can play, but it’s still gambling because it’s the same mind-set,” she explains.
Janice is trying to curb her enthusiasm by placing lower bets and monitoring a spending analysis that pops up automatically every time she logs in to her online bank account.
The times when she doesn’t spend more than she has budgeted for the month are bittersweet.
“It feels like I’m denying myself something that I deserve, because it’s tied to my happiness,” she says, “but I also feel more in control.”
Restraint is what Howie is after. The Highland Mill, New York, resident spends between 12 and 18 hours a day playing video games—sometimes staying up all night to do so. He has loved games since childhood, and has played video games since the first personal computers came out with extremely simplistic graphics.
“I play until I can’t keep my eyes open,” he says. “It can take a while before I get bored with a game. Once I do, I still play for a while, but by that time I’ve fallen into a depression and stay there until I find a new obsession. And round and round it goes.”
That depression is exacerbated by Howie’s bipolar I, which makes it difficult for him to play the guitar, take his wife out to dinner, and do other things he wishes he had the motivation for—if only it weren’t so easy to stay in bed and play games. He continues to see a psychiatrist to stay on his medication regimen, but he has pushed off other medical appointments.
His son, meanwhile, has been an inspiration of sorts, encouraging Howie to get outside for a walk.
“He encourages me to go with him, so now when he walks in and asks, I don’t even give myself time to think about whether I want to go,” says Howie. “I put the computer down. I tell myself, ‘You don’t want to, but you’re going.’ It’s not easy.”
Sometimes rapid cycling or a mixed episode gets in the way—or sore muscles, for that matter. But for the most part Howie is trying to answer two questions—What are you neglecting? What are you avoiding?—that have gone unanswered for too long, in his opinion, costing him friends and a job.
“My main goal right now,” he says, “is to get back to the things I like to do without doing them obsessively.”
SOCIAL MEDIA AND STREAMING
Tom receives affirmation from others on social media. If he puts his iPad out of sight, he sometimes sneaks a peek at his phone to see how many “likes” he has received on Facebook.
“It’s sort of a validation of whether something I put out there was worth reading,” he says.
Tom, from Columbus, Ohio, does not like the amount of time he spends online and calls himself a “social media addict.” He admits he doesn’t get enough sleep, and he wishes he spent more time “having real contact with real friends and not just virtual acquaintances.”
“Social media obsession” has become a buzz phrase. With research showing a link between excessive time on social media and negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, and loneliness, there is increasing attention focused on what is being categorized as a mental health issue.
Ironically, Tom relies on technological tools to trim his screen time usage, which he has managed to cut in recent months by about half. Currently logging about 12 hours a day, he uses software that breaks down how much time he spends weekly on various apps.
“I can even turn on a feature on my iPad called ‘Downtime’ that disables most apps until you select ones to turn on, one by one with a 15-minute window of enabling each, which I have not done,” he says. “I should probably do that.”
Tom has spent less time on Twitter—he has at least 15 handles in a mix of personal and professional accounts—and streaming shows on Netflix and Hulu.
But there still are challenges. At night, he strives for a one-hour buffer between screen time and bedtime, but when he wakes in the middle of the night, it’s not unusual for him to reach for a device.
“When you’re looking for community, it’s a good feeling when you can turn to somebody in a support group at 3 a.m.,” he says. “Giving or getting help is kind of addictive. Much more so than cat videos.”
However, some people have to be careful about managing upsetting emotions brought on by other people’s struggles.
Support from social media offers “a very personal connection and can break some of my isolation in a safer, more protected environment,” says Elizabeth, who lives in Montreal.
Even so, she has to be careful when exposure to other people’s experiences starts to trigger her bipolar I symptoms.
“I start getting anxious or angry, and I’ll react just like I would be if I were talking to someone,” she says. “My boundaries go down and I feel whatever emotion is going on for that person.”
Among her most successful strategies: When feeling fragile, avoid online support groups—or any site that might spark an impulse to respond to a story or comment—and immediately block social media contacts for at least a month after an inciting incident.
REFLECT AND REDIRECT
Want to be more honest with yourself about your investment in what may be too much of a good thing?
To be wholly accountable, assess the difference between what you want to be doing and what you are actually doing.
“Take a look at your behavior as it compares to your actual values,” says Coté, the licensed clinical social worker. “That is really important when we think about psychological resiliency and flexibility.”
With his clients, Coté uses a values worksheet adapted from the work of University of Mississippi psychology professor Kelly G. Wilson. The worksheet prompts reflection on personal beliefs that shape how individuals interact with—and relate to—the world, other people, and themselves. Categories to consider include family relations, friendships/social life, career/employment, education/personal growth and development, and others. A companion form asking, in part, for rankings of importance at the present moment helps clarify and explore priorities.
“This is really about value alignment,” Coté says.
Try reaching out to family, friends, or a therapist if you’re feeling on the brink of mania or depression and could use some help keeping urges at bay.
Even if—especially if—you’re not yet in crisis, according to Dallas psychologist Paul Silver, PhD, awareness of when you’re on the brink of a downhill slide is critical.
Says Silver: “It’s easier to put out a small fire than a big fire.”
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HOW TO KEEP THE GOOD THINGS IN CHECK:
Value connections. “If, on purpose, you are valuing interpersonal relationships, that will be grounding in a way that absolutely is an antidote to doing too much of a good thing,” says Caroline R. Baltzer, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Massachusetts. “We can say the opposite, too. You think your favorite bad habits make you feel relaxed, or excited, but it’s in a way that is pulling you away from other more truly valuable things.”
Evoke a sense of peace. In the movie Mighty Joe Young, the song “Beautiful Dreamer” was the only melody that would calm down the main character, a giant mountain gorilla. Dallas psychologist Paul Silver, PhD, proposes finding your own calming tool—such as a photograph of a favorite person, place, or pet—and keeping it on your phone for easy reference. “There are also a lot of mindfulness apps available,” he says.
Be stern. “I have to reach deep down and say, ‘You can’t do this,’” Tracey, of North Carolina, says when tempted to buy too many clothes. “I start reasoning with myself. I think about how it would take groceries away.” Instead, she goes for a walk, reads, or chats with a friend.
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