Living with bipolar 1 disorder can be challenging. Given the unpredictable nature of mood episodes, which can come on suddenly, and the impulsive and reckless decisions that can occur during periods of mania, people with the condition can have trouble maintaining relationships, jobs, and finances.
People with bipolar 1 also have to contend with the stigma, lack of understanding from others, and having to cope with a lifelong condition, according to a study published in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders.
This is why — along with finding a good doctor and treatment plan — it’s so important for people with bipolar disorder to find a self-care plan that works for them. Finding ways to relax and calm the mind can help reduce stress and maintain good health, which is an important part of managing bipolar 1 disorder. Here’s what to know.
What Is Self-Care for People with Bipolar 1 Disorder?
Self-care isn’t an indulgence. Rather, think of it as routine maintenance for the body and mind. “Self-care includes active habits and behaviors individuals use to maintain a healthy brain and body, especially during periods of high stress,” says Jennifer Reid, MD, a psychiatrist based in Philadelphia.
For people with bipolar 1 disorder, self-care can include things like improving sleep routines, getting regular exercise, and practicing meditation. Self-care is an accessible, convenient way to enhance a bipolar 1 disorder treatment regimen.
Dr. Reid believes that with bipolar 1 disorder, stability leads to more stability. “The more time [a person with bipolar 1] spends in remission, the better their long-term outcomes will be,” she says. “Self-care contributes significantly to maintaining a stable mood and supports such active treatments as medication use and psychotherapy.”
6 Ways to Practice Self-Care With Bipolar 1
The best news about self-care if you have bipolar 1: In most cases, you can do it just about anywhere, and it doesn’t cost much — if anything.
“Self-care is a necessity for those with bipolar 1,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and the director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in New York City. “[It] doesn’t have to be a huge production. … It can be taking a break for a few minutes, meditating, or even walking around the block. Giving your brain a five- or 10-minute break is what’s important.”
Here are six ways to practice self-care if you have bipolar 1 disorder:
1. Set up your bedroom for better sleep. “We know that disrupted or erratic sleep can increase the risk of severe mood episodes,” says Reid. “So, maintaining a constant sleep and wake schedule is very important.” Sleeping better starts with simple routines, such as keeping a regular bedtime schedule, avoiding caffeine for at least six hours before bed, and removing lights from screens (such as from a phone, tablet, or TV) from the bedroom.
2. Connect with loved ones and friends. People with bipolar disorder have a more difficult time maintaining relationships, especially if they aren’t taking medication, according to Dr. Hafeez. But connecting with loved ones and friends, even online through a video call, can provide emotional and physical benefits. “Having relationships that are consistent, stable, and nurturing can boost mood and be a kind of buffer between what’s going on within,” she says. “Relationships can be a protective factor.”
3. Eat a healthy diet. More and more research is pointing to diet having an effect on symptoms of bipolar disorder. Eating a healthy diet can help improve the effectiveness of bipolar disorder treatment, according to research, by increasing the sense of control and ability to cope. “Also, we are increasingly connecting inflammation to risk of mood symptoms, so eating a diet high in vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, which lower inflammation, can be helpful,” Reid says.
Diet quality has increasingly been identified as a potential major contributor to mood stability and expression. Mediterranean dietary patterns may be supportive of good mental health in general and bipolar disorder specifically, compared with a Western diet.
4. Take a few minutes to meditate. Breathe in, breathe out, and relax. Meditation techniques that deepen your breath can lower your body’s stress response as well. “Meditation has a growing database of benefits for mood regulation and stress management, so it can also play a powerful role in limiting escalation of symptoms,” she says.
5. Exercise every day. Even a little exercise can boost your mood, especially if you spend time in nature, such as walking in a park. Exercise releases endorphins, which can act like a natural medication and boost your mood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests engaging in at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, which can include moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, and/or high-intensity activity, such as running. They also recommend adding at least two days of strength training into the mix. “Exercise is a huge part of self-care,” Hafeez says. “I can’t emphasize the benefits of exercise enough. It reduces inflammation, which has increasingly been connected to depression and anxiety.”
6. Stretch out with yoga. A yoga session combines the benefits of exercise and meditation. “Yoga can be a relaxation ritual like meditation, journal writing, or prayer,” Hafeez says. “Yoga can be a way to detach from phones and work and connect with yourself.” A review published in August 2022 in the journal Cureus found that yoga may have a positive effect on mental and physical health in people who have bipolar disorder, though the researchers note that further studies need to be done to analyze the long-term impact.
Reid suggests making daily efforts to stabilize your sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise, and manage your stress to lower your risk of serious mood episodes. But, she notes, it’s important not to stress about how you engage in self-care. “No one practices self-care perfectly,” she says. “The goal is to shift toward healthier choices over time and be compassionate with yourself when it feels very difficult.”