9 Essential Coping Strategies for Bipolar Disorder

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I wish bipolar disorder was like the flu: painful symptoms that last a few days and leave. But it’s more like living as a set of conjoined twins. If you don’t keep both personalities appeased, the disorder has the potential to wreak havoc on every aspect of your life. Sometimes we cope successfully, and sometimes we don’t. While the manifestation of the illness is different in each person, the principals of coping are mostly universal. Here are some of mine.


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Stick to a routine

The bipolar brain thrives with routine: consistency in waking time, eating habits, work schedule, and sleep hygiene. When your brain knows what it is doing next, it’s not as stressed out, which leaves more room to figure out problems and handle other frustrations. A study presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP) showed that establishing routines and consistent sleep cycles can ease symptoms of bipolar.


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Get consistent sleep

Sleep is the most effective thing you can do to prevent mania and keep your bipolar in check. Multiple studies have demonstrated the relationship between sleep deprivation and the risk of mania and hypomania. However, people with depression and bipolar often feel best at night so they want to stay up and compose their masterpiece or write their bestselling novel. The trick is going to bed when the rush of creativity comes, to practice good sleep hygiene when you don’t want to.


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Carve out time for play

Evolutionary biologist and animal behavioral specialist Marc Bekoff, PhD, once said that “play is training for the unexpected.” According to Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of The National Institute for Play, play is critical to the development of the human brain. “Nothing lights up the brain like play,” he explained in his fascinating TED talk. Play is a fun and important way I manage my bipolar disorder. It heals parts of my brain that therapy and other cognitive strategies can't get to.


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Sweat

Back in 400 B.C., Hippocrates wrote, “Eating alone will not keep a man well. He must also exercise.” In the past, scientists have focused on the benefits of exercise for the heart, muscles, lungs, and bones. New research is focusing on how it improves the brain: less depression, better memory, and quicker learning. Studies indicate that exercise may be an effective strategy to deal with the depressive phase of bipolar disorder.


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Eat brain foods

There’s a strong link between mood and food. Too much sugar or caffeine, for example, can put a sensitive person at risk for hypomania. A 2014 review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the link between diet and depression risk and found that a diet consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains was significantly associated with a reduced risk of depression. Other good brain foods include nuts, yogurt, seeds, and, ah yes, dark chocolate.


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Laugh

Charlie Chaplin once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.” I suppose that’s why talented comedians like Stephen Colbert, Art Buchwald, Robin Williams, and Ben Stiller have journeyed through periods of torment. There is an unspoken message hidden within a giggle that says this: “I promise, you’ll get through this.” Research suggests laughter therapy can reverse the stress response, alter dopamine and serotonin levels, and facilitate healing.


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Have a purpose

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Plenty of research supports the idea that aligning ourselves with a cause and helping others can be a pathway to peace. According to a study in Pain Management Nursing, nurses suffering from chronic pain experienced declines in their pain intensity and decreased levels of disability and depression when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others also suffering from chronic pain.


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Rely on faith

A substantial amount of research points to the benefits of faith to mitigate symptoms of depression. In one study, researchers at McLean Hospital found that belief in God was associated with better treatment outcomes. They followed 159 individuals over the course of a year and found that those with no belief — or only a slight belief — in God were twice as likely to not respond to treatment than people with stronger beliefs.


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Keep a record

My mood journal is like a GPS. It tells me where I’ve been and where I’m heading based on data like hours of sleep, stressors, trigger foods, and day of menstrual cycle. I know I’m at risk for mania if I record under four hours of sleep for more than three nights, and I know to expect tears on day 23 of my cycle. Keeping a mood journal throughout the years also allows me to see basic patterns of health and illness, so that I can head in the right direction.