If you have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, then medication and therapy may become important tools in managing your condition. However, there is also a lot you can do yourself to take control of the illness and garner a much better quality of life. Used alongside appropriate medical treatment, self-help strategies can make a huge difference in managing Bipolar.

One of the most important steps you can take is to find out as much as possible about the type of Bipolar you have and how it affects you. There are numerous organisations which provide information, fact sheets and support and you can also speak to your doctor or healthcare professional. Once you have equipped yourself with research, you will be in a much better position to understand the illness and make good choices about your treatment.

It can also be hugely helpful to develop a good sense of self-awareness and cultivate discipline in terms of monitoring your moods. It may seem like a chore at first to be constantly paying attention to how you feel, but noticing changes in your mood and identifying triggers can help to control or stop feelings escalating into a depressive or manic phase. Try writing your thoughts and feelings down in a diary and reviewing them daily, or there are online resources such as www.moodscope.com where you can log your moods and track your thought patterns. There are also a number of mobile/cell phone apps which can be helpful to monitor how you’re doing. In Bipolar Disorder, there are a number of common ‘red flag’ warning signs which precipitate depression or mania, so teach yourself to watch out for these.

Depression warning signs:

  • Isolating yourself from other people
  • Sleeping too much, particularly in the day
  • Not eating well, eating too much or too little
  • No motivation
  • Crying for no reason

Mania warning signs:

  • Feeling irritable
  • Being unable to sit still
  • Talking a lot faster than usual
  • Reading lots of books one after the other
  • Being unable to concentrate

Over time, you can learn to notice your own ‘red flags’ and take action to deal with them.

Managing Bipolar Disorder can be a lot easier if you have support from people around you. If you can reach out to friends, family and keep good contact with your doctor or therapist, it will go a long way towards helping you to feel more in control of the condition. Isolation and loneliness can cause depression so make sure you meet people regularly, even if you don’t always feel like it. Help people to understand by explaining Bipolar to them and giving them information to read. Sometimes asking for specific types of help such as a listening ear or help with shopping and housework can be better than waiting for people to step in. If other people are involved with and understand your illness they can tell you if you are becoming manic or depressed, even if you don’t recognise it yourself. It can also be a good idea to join a support group too and talk to other people with Bipolar. See if there are any local ones in your area or try online groups. Sometimes discussing things with people who have ‘been there’ can be very reassuring and you can share information, support and advice.

Taking a look at your lifestyle habits and making some changes can also be beneficial in coping with Bipolar. These could include:

  • Monitoring your sleeping habits – too little sleep can trigger mania, whilst too much can trigger depression. Aim for the same amount of sleep every night and get up and go to bed at the same time every day.
  • Relaxing – make sure you incorporate some time every day to relax and unwind, whether this is through listening to music, reading a book or going for a walk. Stress is a huge trigger for both depression and mania in Bipolar so try to avoid or minimise it wherever you can.
  • Eating properly – It’s important to eat a properly balanced diet and avoid too much caffeine, sugar and junk food. Avoid high carbohydrate diets as they can cause mood swings. It’s been proven that Omega 3 rich foods such as oily fish can help symptoms of Bipolar so try to include two portions a week.
  • Avoiding alcohol and drugs – Self medicating to numb your symptoms is never a good idea with Bipolar as it can interfere with your prescribed medication and cause more problems. Alcohol and tranquillisers can trigger depression while amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy can trigger mania. Even moderate social drinking can cause mood swings and interfere with your sleep pattern. Watch out for over-the-counter medications too such as cold medications, corticosteroids and appetite suppressants, as they can all cause mania.
  • Establishing a good routine – Having a set routine can have a significant impact on your moods and help to keep them stable. Ensure you have a structured schedule for eating, sleeping, working and exercising and stick to it even if you are having emotional ups and downs.

There are also other measures you can take to look after yourself such as making a crisis plan. There may be times when despite your best efforts, you will need someone else to intervene and make sure you are safe if you are in an acute depressive or manic phase. It can help in periods of feeling helpless and out of control that you still have some element of personal responsibility towards your care. You can create a crisis plan yourself or jointly with a doctor healthcare professional when you are feeling stable, so that your wishes can be taken into account should you suddenly become unwell.

A typical crisis plan could include:

  • Details of your medication including dosages
  • Treatment preferences such as who you want to care for you and which medications do and don’t work
  • A list of symptoms which indicate you are becoming unwell
  • A list of emergency contacts such as your doctor or named family members
  • Any other medical conditions you have and the treatments you are currently taking

Self-help strategies will not provide an instant solution to the difficulties of living with Bipolar Disorder, but with practice and perseverance, they can give you an effective ‘toolbox’ of resources to complement medication and therapy. Taking responsibility for your condition can improve your self-confidence and give you a greater sense of control over your illness, reduce the chance of a relapse and minimize the severity of your symptoms.

Useful sources of information and support: