Time Off Can Be Difficult When You Work with Bipolar

Time Off Can Be Difficult When You Work with Bipolar

Most people look forward to taking time off of work for the holidays (even if the holidays look a little different this year thanks to COVID-19). Folks who live and work with bipolar disorder are no exception. However, the work difficulties that come with bipolar can put a damper on what should be a time to relax and decompress.

Time Off Can Be Stressful When You Have Bipolar

I’ve written before on the importance of keeping a structured routine when you work with bipolar disorder. Mood episodes have a funny way of sneaking up on you when your circadian cycle gets thrown off, and having too much « empty space » in your daily schedule gives mania and depression a perfect opening to start a rampage through your mind. This is one of the reasons why stable and meaningful work is a vital part of bipolar management: it provides structure and fulfillment that improves mood and makes it easier to attain a daily rhythm. Unfortunately, this means that an abrupt change in schedule, even when welcome, can easily lead to an episode.

This is something that I experienced first-hand last year, when my partner and I took a week off of work to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We had a wonderful and relaxing time at the beach, and I felt good and happy for the entire week. But almost immediately after we arrived home, I was hit with a major depressive episode that lasted for several weeks. (Yes, weeks.) I could barely function — just getting out of bed at a reasonable hour took a tremendous amount of effort — and I fell behind at my part-time staff writing job. I was fortunate enough to have an understanding boss, but the shame and embarrassment of not being able to perform simple tasks and met perfectly reasonable deadlines only sent me further down the spiral. Thankfully, I received my bipolar diagnosis about two months later and began mood-stabilizing medication.

Finding Balance While Working with Bipolar

While I have not had a serious mood episode since starting my medication, self-regulation still takes a concerted effort, which means it’s difficult to pull myself away from work: it’s what gives me structure and stability. At the same time, I also cherish my personal time and know that striking a balance between work and play is essential for good mental and emotional health. I often feel frustrated that I can’t just take a vacation without having to factor in potential mood triggers and make a plan for staying on track, and there’s a part of me that envies « normal » people who seem to switch back and forth with relative ease.

Finding my equilibrium while I work with bipolar disorder is still something that I’m getting the hang of, and I don’t have all of the answers worked out yet. One thing that I’ve found helpful is the schedule time off well in advance (as in, weeks or even months before it actually happens) so that I have time to prepare mentally, physically, and organizationally. If I anticipate a change in routine before it happens, it reduces anxiety and gives my brain a message that it’s okay to slow down so that I’m better able to have fun and relax during my time off without having to worry (too much) about crashing or skyrocketing later on. Fortunately, freelancing and working part-time currently make it easier for me to do this, and for that I’m grateful. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a « perfect » long-term solution for maintaining my bipolar equilibrium — if such a thing even exists — but for now, I’m doing my best, and that’s enough.

Drop a line in the comments if you have any tips or tricks for managing time off with bipolar disorder.

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