When I was growing up, I earned a reputation for having a hot head. My dad used to look at me and say I was so angry he could fry an egg on the top of my head. So when bipolar disorder decided to set up shop in my home, we had a formula for disaster – my wife’s mania made her wicked, and my first instinct was to fight back. The result was the equivalent of a tropical storm quickly transforming into a Category 5 hurricane with plenty of energy to keep it raging for weeks on end.

As I developed a greater understanding of bipolar disorder, I realized that entering the fray was counterproductive. As my wife’s mood became increasingly manic, I could tell that it was driving her to actively seek out confrontations. The manic monster inside her had a voracious appetite for high drama. It needed the emotional energy of a knock-down drag-out fight to keep itself going and growing. By allowing it to engage me, I was doing exactly what it wanted me to do. As a result, I was feeding it and making it stronger.

When we started working on Bipolar Disorder For Dummies, one of the points I wanted to stress for loved ones is the importance of not letting the bipolar beast engage you in arguments or fights. Admittedly, I’m not always able to follow my own advice. Out of frustration, I once threw a whole roomful of furniture against the block walls in our basement. I must admit that it felt pretty good at the time.

Since then, I’ve grown a little older and wiser and with Dr. Fink’s help have discovered some cooling off tactics that work fairly well for me. When you begin to feel the urge to get engaged and fight back, try the following strategies to help disengage from the interaction:

  • Take a deep breath. No, really, it sounds so simple, but it works when you give it a good effort. Take a deep breath in through your nose – counting to five – hold it for a count of five, and then blow out slowly and controlled for a count of five. No big sighs or “whooshes” of air – that doesn’t help at all. Try this a few times to ease your own rising emotional tide.
  • Let it go. Try telling yourself that if it’s important you can deal with it later. In the heat of the moment, we often keep trying harder (and louder) to be heard and to solve the problem, but it can’t be solved right now. Sometimes reminding yourself that you can deal with this another time can help take out the urgency of staying engaged to “make it right” or “make her understand.” Still, this is often easier said than done, especially when you’re in an intimate relationship with someone who knows how to push all your buttons.
  • Take a time out. Change your environment – leave the area, leave the room, leave the premises if possible and if you feel it’s necessary. A fresh environment can help to shift your attention, even for a moment, away from the current all-consuming event. It can also shut down an escalating conflict quickly.
  • Take a walk. Give yourself some space to clear your mind and think more rationally. Take your MP3 player and listen to music or just soak up the sounds around you. Don’t drive if you feel very angry or out of control, but some people find that driving is very soothing.
  • Practice a “quick” mindfulness exercise, such as taking a “sensory inventory.” Take a moment to reflect actively on all the input coming into your system right in the moment. What do you see? Smell? Hear? What texture or sensation are you feeling on your skin? Are you eating something? What exactly does it taste like? This exercise refocuses you to this moment and helps de-escalate your own emotional response.
  • Talk to someone – a close friend or family member or perhaps your own therapist. In the moment, however, try to stay focused on just cooling down. Don’t try to solve the big problems or go digging around too deep in the heat of an anger episode – it will only keep feeding the emotions and reinforcing the emotional response. Talk with the goal of calming down.
  • Remind yourself that the person who’s confronting you is not the healthy version of your loved one. When your loved one is healthy, he or she probably doesn’t act the same way or say the same things. Try to think of the illness as taking over and “hijacking” your loved one’s brain and behavior. They are suffering greatly.
  • Avoid using substances to “cool down.” This will undoubtedly make things worse.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you lose your temper and say something you shouldn’t have said. The only people who don’t lose their temper are those who don’t have a temper to lose.

The key to maintaining your cool in these situations is to focus on your own health and well being first. It’s sort of like being in an airplane when the oxygen masks drop down – you have to get your own mask on first before helping those around you.

Do something for yourself. Bitterness can often set in when you’re spending all your time and energy caring for someone else.

If you have other suggestions for maintaining your composure when bipolar disorder heats up, please share them.