It’s important for everyone to learn to manage stress, but with bipolar disorder, stress can have a larger impact both in the short term and the long term. Chronic stress or stressful events have a hugely negative impact on both the mind and body, which can trigger mood episodes. Keeping stress and anxiety to a minimum can help prevent bipolar episodes and lead to overall better health.
People with bipolar disorder are more prone to stress than the average population. The experience of having bipolar disorder is enough to elevate stress levels over time. Add to it the consequences of bipolar disorder, such as regretful actions during manic phases, and both the anxiety and stress levels only increase.
The human body works to create balance, both mentally and physically. When there is stress, whether internal or external, hormones are released to help the body deal with the stress and return to homeostasis. Chronic stress causes the body to keep producing and over-producing stress hormones. This is called the allostatic load.
A high allostatic load can create chemical imbalances and physical changes in parts of the brain already vulnerable due to bipolar disorder. The prefrontal cortex shrinks, leading to emotional instability, self-regulation problems, and mood changes.
Chronic stress can lead to other health problems including:
- Trouble sleeping
- Digestive problems
- Irritable mood and being easily frustrated
- Feeling overwhelmed or helpless
- Poor concentration
- Bad judgement
- Increased risk of suicide
Handling stress is a difficult process, but it is possible to learn strategies to help reduce chronic stress and alleviate the associated symptoms.
1 Identify the stressor
When stress is overwhelming, it can feel like it’s coming from everywhere at once. Most of the time this isn’t the case and it’s possible to determine the source. Work problems, relationship issues, moving, getting married, sensory over-stimulation, and grief are a few examples of stressors. Remember that positive events can cause stress as well.
2 Determine the threat level
Anxiety can make stressful events seem bigger than they really are. Don’t discount feelings, but acknowledge that situations can be easier to deal with after taking a closer look.
3 List possible solutions
Some solutions may be as simple as taking a break or getting more sleep, but chronic stress often involves multiple stressors, with their own possible solutions. Each situation is different and may require a lot of thought to find a resolution.
4 Put a plan into action
Motivation can be hard to muster with bipolar disorder. The problems with the prefrontal cortex brought about by the stress are the same problems that make putting a plan into action difficult, even in manic phases, when planning and activity can be at their highest.
5 Ask for help
This doesn’t need to be Step 5. It can and should happen at any point during stressful periods. Support systems are a necessity. People outside the situation can provide different perspectives and ideas on how to diffuse situations and alleviate stress. Helpers can be friends, loved ones, doctors, therapists, or social workers.
6 Practice self-care
Self-neglect is a risk with bipolar disorder. Establish a routine that includes showering, wearing clean clothes, eating well, sleeping well, and adhering to treatment plans. Having a routine provides predictability, which can help lower stress.
Excessive stress and anxiety may be signs of oncoming mood episodes, so it’s important to track triggers, medications, and mood changes. Being prepared for a mood swing and being able to manage stress can help make dealing with an episode as easy as possible.
Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski