Are the highs and lows of a loved one’s bipolar disorder bringing you down? Here’s an expert’s advice on how to stay strong — physically and psychologically.
While caring for someone with bipolar disorder is often a labor of love, it is also (understandably) exhausting and disruptive, and chances are that much of what you do on a day-to-day basis goes overlooked and unnoticed.
Though you’re not in it for the applause or the accolades, occasionally you need a little TLC, when the focus is firmly on you for a change. Think of it this way: On an airplane, you’re instructed to put the oxygen mask on yourself first — before your child. That’s because if you pass out, how can you possibly be of help? The same case can be made when taking care of a bipolar loved one. Since you’re the support provider, you have to stay strong — both mentally and physically.
Everyday Health’s Emotional Health expert Ruth Wolever, PhD, clinical health psychologist and research director at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine, has some useful tips on how to make your own health a priority.
- Get adequate rest and sleep.Sounds like a no-brainer — but it’s easy to put your own basic needs aside and not even realize you’re headed for burnout. Getting enough sleep is essential for the healthy functioning of every system in your body.
- Exercise — even if it’s minimal. “Just a 10-minute walk — but on an almost-daily basis — is hugely important,” says Dr. Wolever. Besides keeping you fit, exercise is also a great stress buster.
- Eat nourishing foods. Staying physically healthy is particularly critical when you’re a caregiver, and a healthful diet is key to this effort. Keep in mind that an overreliance on caffeine, processed foods, and sugar will increase your own mood swings and leave you feeling even more stressed.
- Take some moments for yourself. “Having some private time is really, really important,” says Wolever. You’ll need to plan ahead so you can participate in outside activities that you enjoy (a book group, sports event, dinner with a friend). In addition, try to carve a few minutes out of each day to concentrate on something you enjoy — this can be remarkably restorative, Wolever notes.
- Understand the negative emotions. Guilt, resentment, and anger are normal parts of the caregiving process, but that’s not always easy to acknowledge. When you find yourself harboring these feelings, consider this to be a red flag signaling that you need to take a step back and think about what’s really going on. Remember, your loved one’s irritability and mood swings are due to a chemical imbalance and aren’t necessarily intentional or aimed at you personally — so don’t be so quick to make assumptions about the reasons behind his or her behavior. Learning as much as possible about bipolar disorder can also help.
- Validate your efforts. Your loved one with bipolar disorder may not be in a position to express gratitude to you, but don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back from time to time. Take a moment to appreciate your efforts and how they’re paying off — for example, you may consider your efforts successful if the person you’re caring for is getting up in the morning, going to work, or developing friendships.
- Find support. Difficult situations can seem so much worse when you think you’re alone, so connecting with others in similar circumstances — for example, in a structured support group — can help provide some needed perspective. (All-out gripe sessions, though, aren’t necessarily useful.) “You want to find people who understand and whose outlook you also value,” says Wolever. You may also want to seek out some professional help for yourself if you feel overwhelmed.
- Laugh it off. Try to find humor in your circumstances. While this may sometimes be difficult, lightening up a tough situation with laughter is one of the world’s oldest and best coping mechanisms. A joke can help defuse a tense moment and nudge a potentially difficult situation in a different, happier direction.
- Conserve energy. Because you may already be expending a good amount of your energy dealing with a loved one’s mania, you may not have much left over — so adjust your expectations accordingly. It is probably more useful in the long run to go to bed on time, for example, than to have all the dishes washed and the kitchen picked up perfectly every night.
- Make a mission statement. According to Wolever, it’s important for caregivers to think about a mission statement for themselves — in other words, what do you want from your life? Taking care of a loved one with bipolar disorder might be a really important part of that mission, but there are likely to be other objectives as well. When you have a clear idea of your own goals and desires, you’ll be better able to prioritize all the demands on your time and know when to say no.