Bipolar Disorder: Self-care

When you fly on an airplane the flight attendants always review the emergency procedures before take-off. One important procedure describes what to do if the cabin pressure fails and the oxygen masks are deployed. 

If you are traveling with a small child you are supposed to put on your oxygen mask first, and then help the child with his or hers. The reason for this is not selfish, it is very simple: if you help the child first, and you pass out from lack of oxygen, not only is your safety now at risk, but the safety of your child is in jeopardy as well. 

The same is true in life and it is especially true for mothers with bipolar disorder. We have to make sure we are taking care of ourselves mentally, emotionally and physically so that we are able to meet the needs of our children. As the saying goes, “you cannot pour from an empty cup.” But what does mental health self-care look like?

Misunderstanding Self-care

During the first twelve years after I was diagnosed I really struggled with applying or even understanding what self-care was. My version of self-care was going out and buying new make-up every time I got depressed or getting a new hairstyle whenever I got manic. 

Once when I was trying to declutter my home I discovered a large box of make-up that was largely unused from these attempts at “self-care.”  I felt so helpless and didn’t know how to fix the inside, so I was desperately trying to fix the outside to make myself look “ok,” even if I didn’t feel “ok.”

I didn’t understand what I needed to do to care for myself. I felt like my mind was on a rollercoaster that I couldn’t get off of and I was just along for the ride. I especially didn’t know how to do it when I was struggling through an intense depressive episode. I would sometimes go days without showering or changing my clothes, and often I couldn’t even get out of bed. How do you care for yourself, let alone your children when you can’t even function?

What is Self-care?

The term self-care is so frequently used that, like the word “love”, it’s meaning has become diluted and ambiguous. If you look the term up on Pinterest thousands of cute pins pop up with dozens, sometimes hundreds of ideas from having a spa day to reading a favorite book or spending time with loved ones or friends. These are great ideas for managing your mental health, but when you have a mental health disorder there are very specific things that you need to do to care for and manage your disorder effectively. 

To learn how to live well with bipolar disorder you have to take responsibility for caring for yourself and your disorder. Developing a consistent, effective self-care routine is essential to learning to live a healthy, balanced, productive life.

Prepare for Mood Cycles Before They Occur

The first step is to prepare for the times when you experience a “mood cycle” or manic-depressive episode. You do this by developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. When you have bipolar disorder, it is not a matter of if, but when you will struggle with a mood cycle. You can sit around waiting for the next mood cycle to “happen” to you, and then deal with it reactively, or you can proactively plan for the mood cycle so that you are prepared to manage it more effectively when it occurs.

Preparing ahead of time by developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan enables you to:

  1. Minimize the impact of the mood cycle on you and your family, and;
  2. Identify what steps you can take to recover more quickly from the mood cycle. 

You can find a free guide to creating your own Mental Health Emergency Response Plan here.

Balancing Your Brain Chemistry

The next thing to understand about self-care is that in order to care for yourself with bipolar disorder you need to make sure the chemistry in your brain is balanced. It can be challenging, and sometimes even impossible, to function in a healthy, balanced way, if your brain chemistry is unstable, causing irrational thoughts, mood swings, dramatic shifts in motivation, etc. 

There are different ways to balance your brain chemistry. Some people do it through the use of psychotropic medications and treatments, and others through the use of specialized supplements. Because everyone is different there is not a “one size fits all” treatment that works for everyone. It is important to work with a psychiatrist to identify the best treatment plan for you. To learn more about my experience with medication read my post.

Working with a Therapist

Self-care also includes counseling or therapy. When you have bipolar disorder sometimes your biggest enemy is your own mind. Because your brain chemistry is out of balance you can develop unhealthy and irrational ways of experiencing and interacting with the world around you. 

As you work to balance your brain chemistry it is important to work with a good therapist or counselor to learn how to identify unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealed trauma and boundary issues that could continue to contribute to mood cycles or imbalances. To learn more about the important role counseling plays in living well with bipolar see my post on counseling.

Developing a Routine

The next step in self-care is to establish a self-care routine. This routine will take time to develop. While each tool is important for everyone, the way that you apply these tools will vary from person to person. The basic tools for a balanced self-care routine are:

  • Practicing mindfulness meditation
  • Exercise (keep it simple, easy and accessible)
  • Yoga
  • Healthy, consistent sleep habits
  • Good nutrition
  • Hygiene habits
  • Carefully evaluating and managing stressors

Take your time to work on each tool and identify the most effective way to integrate the tool into your self-care routine.

Choose Your Hard

Learning how to effectively and proactively care for yourself with bipolar disorder is a process that takes time, effort and it may be hard. But living with untreated or inadequately treated bipolar disorder is already hard, especially if you are a mother. So, you need to choose your hard. Are you going to: 

  • choose the hard that involves continuing to suffer the ever increasing negative effects of your disorder on your mind, your feelings of self-worth, your relationships, and your life, or;
  • choose the hard that involves doing the work to learn how to use and apply the tools necessary to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar?

Choose your hard.

It Gets Easier and It’s Worth It!

Learning to practice effective self-care to manage bipolar disorder is not easy, but it is worth the effort, and it will get easier. I have learned how to live a healthy, balanced, productive life as a mother with bipolar disorder, and so can you!

If you are a mother with bipolar disorder and you are looking for support and you learn how to live well with it, join our free Facebook Group!

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