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When Self-Care Isn’t an Option

Practicing self-care is important for everyone, but especially those with severe mental illness. If those of us with bipolar disorder don’t take care of ourselves, our symptoms worsen and it can trigger a manic or depressive episode. Self-care requires a lot of energy, attention and no small amount of what some might view as selfishness. Alongside medication and therapy, practicing self-care can be an effective part of anyone’s treatment plan. However, it can be difficult to maintain a self-care lifestyle. Life is not always predictable, so we need to prepare ourselves for when our normal self-care routine isn’t feasible.

Self-care is a broad concept that has to be personalized. The way I take care of myself might not be the same way you take care of yourself, even if we both have bipolar disorder. That said, there are several basic tenets of self-care that can apply to everyone:

  • Follow a daily routine
  • Practice good sleep hygiene
  • Practice mindfulness prayer or meditation
  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Keep track of symptoms
  • Avoid overstimulation
  • Learn to say “no”

The problem that everyone who practices self-care will run into is that, at some point, keeping up with all of this will just not be possible. Life happens. We go on vacations, friends or family come to visit, we experience personal and family tragedies. It’s just not possible keep the same routine all the time. Sometimes self-care has to take a back seat to whatever is happening in the moment. During stressful times it is still important to maintain a modicum of self-care whenever possible. Here are some ways to do that:

1 Keep whatever parts of your routine you can.
You might not be able to go to the gym first thing in the morning, but you may be able to walk around the block. You may not be able to eat lunch at the same time, but take a small (healthy) snack if you can. Every little bit helps.

2 Try to get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation and jet lag can trigger episodes all on their own, even if other pieces of self-care are in place. Sometimes it is not possible to follow a regular sleep schedule, but try to get as close to 7-8 hours at some point. This may mean you experience FOMO (fear of missing out) but it will help you keep a grip on the rest of your life.

3  Get some quiet time.
While practicing regular prayer and meditation in a controlled environment may not be possible, it should be possible to just step outside of whatever is going on to take a moment to clear your head and be alone. This can help avoid overstimulation.

4 Set an alarm for your medication.
When your routine is off, medication is incredibly easy to neglect. If you can’t complete your morning ritual, you may forget taking medication as part of it. To avoid forgetting, and the ill effects that come with it, set and label an alarm for the times you would normally take your medication. You may need to carry pill boxes with you.

5 Stay in touch with your social support system.
When your life is disrupted (even in a good way, like a vacation), you may need someone to ground you. If life is incredibly stressful, you can still use your support system to walk you through the hard parts. You may not be able to meet for coffee with a friend that week, but sometimes a text will do just as well.


The ideal level of self-care may not be possible at all times. We don’t live perfect, predictable lives, though we can be resourceful. Get creative in the ways that you can take care of yourself while still taking care of others and managing whatever situation you’re in.



You can follow me on Twitter @LaRaeRLaBouff or find me on Facebook.

Image credit: Hamza Butt

When Self-Care Isn’t an Option

LaRae LaBouff

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APA Reference
LaBouff, L. (2017). When Self-Care Isn’t an Option. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 19 Jul 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 Jul 2017
Published on All rights reserved.