Actions You Can Take to Relieve Stress and Avoid an Unpleasant Episode

July 24, 2009 at 11:18 am | Posted in stress | Leave a comment
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It’s hard enough being bipolar.  If you’re like me, you have a demented drill instructor howling in your head most of your waking hours, and you feel like you must resist at all costs — even if resisting means lying very still and staring at the wall.

So what do you do when extra stress comes blasting at you?  Say you’ve broken off a long relationship (or been dumped), you’re under grinding deadline pressure at work, or God forbid and God help you, you’ve lost your job entirely.  What can you do to keep yourself from spiraling out of control when life gets really rough?

Here’s what’s worked for me in the past.  I don’t take these steps as often as I should, but when I do they help every time.

1.  Exercise.  It’s best if you can do something rigorous that’s both mentally and physically absorbing.  For me, bushwhacking and rock climbing can really help.  With the former, there’s the loveliness of nature; with the latter, if I don’t pay attention, I’ll fall (do rope in, unless you’re really determined to die with your boots on).  If you haven’t got the time (and who does when you’re working 12-hour days over some damn work crisis), then make time for small, mild bursts.  When I’m getting schizy at work, I often take a 15 minute break just to walk around briskly.

If you doubt my advice, read John J. Ratey’s book Spark — it will persuade you that moving your body really can change you intellectually, spiritually and emotionally.

2.  Take a yoga class.  I have a daily yoga practice at home, but there’s nothing like showing up in a lovely, lavender-scented studio with hardwood floors and just dong what the nice instructor tells you.  In my experience, there’s no high to equal it.  Yoga will remove you from your problems long enough for you to rejuvenate yourself and get some perspective on that lost relationship or job.  It will put you in touch with a higher self that transcends even great losses.

Again, what if there’s no time, or no yoga studio nearby?  Then get a book or video and practice on your own.  I swear by three books: Cyndi Lee’s Om Yoga will benefit both beginning and intermediate yogis, and is portable enough to take with you anywhere. Her excellent Yoga Body, Buddha Mind will take you up to advanced practice. The Yoga Bible includes everything from restorative postures to exotic balances. This book works better if you have a regular practice and are looking to shake things up by trying something like Scorpion that you never thought they could do.

As with other forms of exercise, some is better than nothing.  I like to do cowhead pose and reverse anjali mudra at my desk, which may be part of the reason why my office mate is on to my madness.

3. Orient yourself to the present. Notice five things you can see, five things you can hear, and five things you can feel. These things don’t have to be beautiful or exotic. Just focus on an icon on your computer screen or your pencil holder and really see it. Then tune into the tiny noises around you: the humming of the air conditioning, or the friction between your pant legs if you’re walking. Then become conscious of the air against your skin — is it warm or cool? Or notice the sensation of your watch around your wrist. The point is not to judge — I’m miserably hot, or God, that chattering bitch in the next cube bugs me, or even, what a grand saguaro cactus — instead, you’re just trying to jar yourself loose from your worries about the future and regrets about the past, and to exist in the present, even just for a moment.

4. Do something absorbing. Get engaged in work or play that has the potential to bring about a flow state. This is not busy work or any activity that you can do while brooding. No, this is something that will give you a sense of mastery while stretching your abilities. Only you know which activities work for you. Many people find flow in simple activities like driving and sex, or more complex activities like practicing a musical instrument or creating art. The point is to get outside of your miserable self and shift your attention to something external that you love.

5. Take a nap. Sometimes, when all else fails, I just take a 30-60 minute nap, and about 50 percent of the time, that just seems to push my reset button and improve my mood. Set a timer to make sure that you don’t just spend half an hour staring at the wall thinking of your own inadequacies. If you haven’t slept after 20 minutes, then it’s probably time to get up and try something else.

6. Purge stuff. For whatever reason, it really lifts my spirits to just sort through a desk drawer and toss old files, broken office equipment, and grungy sticky notes covered with old reminders. Like many bipolar people, I tend to accumulate things a bit compulsively, and it’s a great exercise to go through and get rid of anything that you’ll never use, or that holds negative associations. It’s a sign of the times that there are probably hundreds of books on how to shed your stuff, but I like Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui. It appeals to my hokey, new age side.

7. Stick to a regular sleep schedule and get a minimum of eight hours. This is critical if you’re bipolar. For Christ’s sake, don’t make my constant mistake and try to trigger hypomania by shorting yourself on sleep.

A note of caution: many of these activities will seem impossible if you’re depressed. If you are, you’ll need to take much smaller baby steps towards positive mental states. Any of these can help if you’re willing to start very, very small — say, a single yoga pose, or a five-minute walk up and down the office hallway. For times when you’re truly down, I highly recommend Get It Done When You’re Depressed, a brilliant little book written by a woman who’s been there.

That’s all for now. I’ll save the formal introductions for later.

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