What is the Link Between Stress and Bipolar Disorder?

Are you feeling stress? Stress exacerbates your bipolar disorder. Learn how in this post on the Bipolar Parent!

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The Link Between Stress and Bipolar Disorder - CassandraStout.com

Stress affects everything in your body, from your shoulders to your hormones, from your immune system to your mental illnesses. Stress is a physical issue, just like bipolar disorder, as both mess with your feel-good chemicals.

There are different types of stress. There’s good stress (also called eustress), which can motivate you to make dinner on time and meet deadlines at work. Good stress is infrequent, usually not repeated, and short-lived, leaving you better off than you were before you encountered the stress.

Bad stress, on the other hand, lingers. It lasts a long time and repeats frequently, leaving you much worse off than you were before.

But stress is even worse for people who suffer from mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder. People with mental health conditions tend to be unable to handle stress as well as neurotypical people. For people with bipolar disorder, even small, inconsequential decisions can stress us out. If we feel stress during everyday decisions, then the fact that stress exacerbates bipolar disorder symptoms makes sense.

Bipolar disorder and stress, especially bad stress, are a nasty combination. Stress is a known trigger for both hypomanic and depressive episodes–and sometimes even mixed episodes.

My Experience with Stress

Different types of stresses affect me in different ways. Before a long road trip or a flight, I get riled up and anxious without fail. I definitely have racing thoughts and other symptoms of hypomania, minus the euphoria. Sleeping becomes difficult, which only exacerbates the manic feelings.

On the flip side, feeling stressed about my messy house depresses me. The link between clutter and depression is very real, as having items on the floor focuses me to make decisions about them (specifically, whether to put them away or leave them there) every time you walk past them. After a full day of making many, many decisions and (usually) not taking any action on the items, I suffer decision fatigue, which for me leads to depression.

When I’m stress-depressed, I often berate myself for my inability to pick up the house. I know rationally that my laziness isn’t really laziness, but is a problem called executive dysfunction, which stress also makes worse.

Executive dysfunction is the inability to prioritize tasks, and determine the order of actions. Stress makes prioritizing and deciding on which actions to take very difficult, which is common for those of us who suffer mental illness.

(For a post on the link between bipolar disorder and executive functioning, click here.)

When I’m stressed, my ability to handle my responsibilities falters significantly, which only leads to more stress. I am reduced to a ruminating mess, turning in circles and chasing my own tail. Bad stress makes me completely incapable of acting like a functional adult.

Take Care of Yourself: Destress

If you want to improve your bipolar disorder symptoms, you need to manage your stress levels. Being constantly stressed, especially with bad stress, will lead to a mood episode.

Sometimes you can make big changes, like getting a new job or finding a new living situation. Diet also plays a role in how well you’re able to handle stress, so a lifestyle change like eating healthier foods may help you fill up your tank.

Even small changes can help. Starting a yoga or taekwondo class can help you relax. Deep-breathing techniques may also reduce your stress.

Talking to a therapist is also a good idea. You can learn coping techniques and tools for handling stress throughout the rest of your life.

Above all, practice self-care. Self-care is taking responsibility for your physical and mental well-being. That’s it. Don’t neglect to eat regularly, get enough sleep, go outside, socialize with people face-to-face, drink enough water, and exercise. If you do most of these big six tenants of self-care on a daily basis, you will be better off.

Final Thoughts

Bad stress affects me in a lot of negative ways. I’m not the best at handling stressful situations. So I plan ahead for them. I make massive to-do lists, outlining each tiny step that I need to take in order to conquer the issue. And I practice self-care.

Bad stress may affect you despite your best efforts. You may end up living through many, many stressful situations throughout your life, like moves, marriages, and births. You need to lean on your coping tools during these times.

Plan ahead. Take the times when life is relatively calm to assess your ability to handle stress, and plan how you’ll respond to changes. If necessary, you can get a prescription for anti-anxiety medications that you take on an as-needed basis.

Effectively managing your stress will help you suffer less from your bipolar disorder.

Related:

The Link Between Stress and Bipolar Disorder - CassandraStout.com

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7 Frugal, Proven Ways to Destress While Stuck at Home Due to Coronavirus

7 Frugal, Proven Ways to Destress - CassandraStout.com

Stress. Everyone has it.

Stress is a normal physiological response to something that upsets your equilibrium, like a threat or a challenge. It’s your body’s ability to protect you.

Sometimes stress can be good for you (it’s called eustress), motivating you to meet deadlines at work and exercise (which is itself another form of good stress). Good stress is short-lived and infrequent, and leaves you better off than you were before you encountered the stressful time.

But stress can sometimes be bad for you, especially if you’re not managing it well. Bad stress lasts a long time, happens frequently, and leaves you worse off. This kind of stress collects and collects, piling on to your brain.

Since 1992, April has been Stress Awareness Month. Sponsored by The Health Resource Network (HRN), a non-profit health education organization, Stress Awareness Month encourages people to educate themselves about the dangers of bad stress, learn coping skills, and recognize prevalent stress myths.

During self-quarantining due to the coronavirus pandemic, everyone is feeling significant amounts of stress, mostly bad. We don’t know when the need to self-quarantine will end, and we don’t know if we will catch the coronavirus ourselves. Many of our friends and family may already be infected.

We’re also worried about our financial futures. We may have to work at home. Millions of Americans have been laid off. Our kids’ schools have closed, and no one knows when they will open–or even if they’ll open for the rest of the academic year.

All this uncertainty adds up to a stressful time for everyone.

Celebrate Stress Awareness Month with these 7 frugal, proven ways to destress while you’re stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

1. Breathe Deep

Taking breaths doesn’t sound like it could help as much as it does. Inhaling expands your chest and shoulders, releasing tension. Plus, fresh oxygen improves your brain’s ability to remember things, alleviates stress, and keeps cells healthy.

Try this exercise, given to me by my therapist over eight years ago:

    1. Close your eyes, if you feel safe enough to do so.
    2. Inhale deeply through your nose, preferably into your abdomen, while counting to 3.
    3. Hold for 3-5 seconds.
    4. Exhale, releasing the air from your mouth over a period of at least 3 seconds.

This rarely fails to relax me.

2. Exercise

Exercise can help you manage your stress in a low-cost, high-impact way. Studies show that exercise can improve your mood. A simple, 20-minute jog around your neighborhood, which releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins, can improve your mood for a whopping twelve hours.

You don’t have anything to lose by working out. Try to get some exercise today, preferably outdoors in the sunlight. Anything that gets your heart rate up—jogging, boxing, yoga—is an excellent way to manage your stress levels.

3. Eat a Small, Healthy Snack

When people are stressed, they sometimes turn to food for comfort. Like exercise, food is one easy way to force the brain to release feel-good chemicals. And nothing is more stressful to the brain than starving it.

But you don’t have to make stress eating a bad thing. Even eating a small, healthy snack is a scientifically-backed way to destress.

Try half an avocado, or a stick of string cheese, or a handful of almonds. You want a snack that is full of protein or heart-healthy fats.

The way you eat your snack is also important. Take your food somewhere distraction-free. Sit down with your feet shoulder-width apart. Breathe deeply (tip #1), and focus on your food. Feel the texture of your food on your tongue.

Try to divorce judgment from eating. This is a snack which is good for you and will help you destress.

4. Get Enough Quality Sleep

Sleep is crucial for you to function on even a basic level, but even more so if you have mental illness like bipolar disorder. Getting enough sleep may help prevent manic episodes and helps regulate depressive episodes.

If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain will hold onto your stress. Quality, restful sleep starts in the bedroom. Make sure you have a dark, quiet environment to catch some Zs.

For a post on how to handle insomnia and other sleep disturbances while you have bipolar disorder, click here.

5. Detox from Your Smartphone

A study done by British researchers showed a clear link between rising stress levels and compulsively checking emails and social media on a smartphone.

Unplug from your electronic devices, and marvel at how much your stress dissipates after only an hour.

6. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Appreciating what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t has been proven to reduce stress, and improve physical and mental well-being.

Writing an entry in a gratitude journal is a low-cost way to feel better about the world and your place in it.

7. Do a Full-Body Check In

If you’re feeling stressed, your body will show signs of the negative feelings. Your shoulders can be tense, your stomach may churn, and your lower back might be sore.

But how you feel physically can also add to stress. It’s a vicious cycle: you feel stressed, which affects your body, which in turn raises your stress level, and so on.

Nip the cycle in the bud. Check in with your body.

Sit or lie down somewhere peaceful. Starting with your toes, mentally examine each body part. Are you sore anywhere? Tense? Hungry? Thirsty? How’s your stomach feeling? How are your shoulders? Do you have enough oxygen in your system (tip #1)?

Examine your needs, and then go solve them. If you’re hungry, eat a small, healthy snack (tip #3). If you’re tired, take a nap (tip #4). Check in with your body, identify issues you might be facing, and practice self-care.

Final Thoughts

Destressing is a form of self-care. Taking the time to relax yourself will have untold benefits for your physical body and mental state. Destressing helps your mood, outlook, and ability to handle future stressful situations.

Celebrate Stress Awareness Month. Destress with one of these practical, scientifically-backed tips today.

I wish you well in your journey.

Related:

7 Frugal, Proven Ways to Destress - CassandraStout.com

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Children at High Risk for Bipolar Disorder Genetically Vulnerable to Stress

children
Credit to flickr.com user tanitta. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Genetic alterations that regulate stress have been found in children at high risk for bipolar disorder, according to research done by scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). The study was published in Translational Psychiatry, a Nature Publishing Group journal.

 

Researchers have long known that children who experience stressors in their lives are more likely to develop bipolar disorder. Parents with bipolar may struggle with their disorders, thus placing stress on their children. But this study shows that children at a high risk for developing bipolar–due to having family members with a history of psychiatric illness–are genetically vulnerable to stress.

The scientists at UTHealth took blood samples from eighteen children, consisting of a set of bipolar patients, a set of apparently neurotypical patients with bipolar parents, and a set of neurotypical controls with parents that have no history of mental illness. The blood samples revealed that, compared with the control group, bipolar children and unaffected kids with bipolar parents have genetic alterations that regulate the response to stress.

So, children with bipolar parents are more vulnerable to stress, and when stressed, tend to develop the disorder. This may sound like bad news all around, but there is a positive approach to this study. Future research may reveal the effects of reducing stress, as well as whether medication might be able to reverse the genetic alterations in children before bipolar disorder matures.

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Nature vs. Nurture: The Causes of Bipolar Disorder

What causes bipolar disorder? Scientists aren’t actually sure, but are taking into consideration several risk factors, such as genes, brain structure, and environmental causes.

Genes

doctor
Credit to flickr.com user CIFOR. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Genetic studies of twins have shown promising results with regards to bipolar disorder. According to a a study by Berit Kerner, “The heritability of bipolar disorder based on concordance rates for bipolar disorder in twin studies has been estimated to be between 60% and 80%.” However, if one identical twin develops Bipolar I, the rate of the other twin developing it is roughly 40%, compared to fraternal twins at 5%. Parents have a 10 to 15% chance to pass bipolar disorder to their children if one parent has the disorder, compared to 30 to 40% if both do. This means genetics play a crucial role in the transmission of bipolar disorder.

Brain Structure

Recent evidence suggests that the structure of the brain may contribute to people developing bipolar disorder. MRI studies have found the over-activation of the amygdala, which processes memory, helps decision-making, and controls emotional reactions. People who are manic showed decreased activity in the interior frontal cortex, which assists problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and impulse control. Certain psychiatric medications work on neurotransmitters, suggesting that these messenger chemicals play a significant role in the function of bipolar disorder, but no one knows how exactly they’re responsible.

Environmental Factors

Stress is a significant predictor of bipolar disorder in people who are susceptible to the disease. Life events such as childbirth, trauma, job loss, or grief over a death in the family may trigger a mood episode. My mania and subsequent psychosis was set off by the birth of my first child, Nolan, but my second child’s birth did not trigger anything. However, substance abuse, hormonal issues, and altered health habits can also spark the illness.

Many factors set in motion the development of bipolar disorder. With more research, scientists will discover the roots of the disease, and possibly be able to prevent it in the future.

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