I’ve always wondered if I have reverse seasonal affective disorder. Although spring and summer bring more light with longer days, I don’t struggle with the same hypomania many people with bipolar disorder experience during those seasons. I usually find myself less motivated to go out and socialize in the warmer months. Maybe it’s because I live in the south. I’ve always hated the heat and humidity that accompany summertime here. I just want to stay inside in the air conditioning until it’s over.
But as soon as the weather cools and the leaves turn gold and red, I suddenly feel an excited energy bubble up in my cells. The end of the year signifies the beginning of months of costumes and parties and presents. That means drinking, socializing, and constant movement from one event to the next. All that activity and stimulation triggers fall hypomania. It happens every year. I can’t tell you how many one night stands I’ve had during the weekend of daylight savings/fall back over the years. Quite a few.
By learning from past mistakes, and spending years developing self-awareness, I’ve come to realize I have a problem. I’m addicted to the excitement of fall and the promise of months of non-stop fun. I don’t want to throw myself into an episode, because I know hypomania never lasts. It can quickly spiral down into depression or up into mania, both of which can be dangerous and even fatal. Now that I know what fall means to me, I’ve put some safeguards in place to reign myself in while still enjoying the season.
(1) Limiting My Drinking
Drinking is one of the quickest (and most dangerous) ways to throw myself into hypomania. Although alcohol is a depressant, it never fails to rev up my mood by flooding my brain with dopamine. The problem with fall is that holiday parties revolve around drinking, rounding it all out with New Year’s Eve. It’s the time of year to celebrate coming together with friends and family, raise a glass and toast. Even some of my family members who don’t normally drink have a few during holiday gatherings. Naturally, I want to join them. I’ve learned over the years to simply limit myself to two drinks per event. I don’t drink liquor, because everyone mixes differently. I never know what I’m going to get because I don’t know how strong it might be. By sticking with pre-made, lower alcohol choices like beer and wine, I know what the alcohol percentages are. That way I can gauge how much is safe while still partaking in the festive atmosphere.
(2) Getting Enough Regular Sleep
It’s a well-known fact that sleep disturbance is the number one trigger for mood episodes in bipolar disorder. Even though the fall back time change is only an hour difference, that can be enough to throw my sleep schedule off. If I’m used to waking up at 7 AM, and fall back happens, I naturally wake up at 6. By October, it’s barely light outside at six in the morning. Waking up in the dark disorients me, and that screws with my circadian rhythms even more. Just a tiny change in my sleep schedule can have a snowball effect on the rest of my life. Less sleep means more energy, which then turns into less sleep. It becomes a vicious cycle, which leads inevitably to hypomania. To combat this, I readjust my circadian rhythms by taking melatonin at night for a week or two right after the time change. I do this when the daylight savings/spring forward happens too. I even take melatonin when I travel. Basically, any time I need to regulate my sleep, I use it as a way to chemically (and safely) tell my body and brain that it’s time to go to bed at the correct time, and that helps put me back on track no matter what time it is.
(3) Maintaining A Routine
Holidays often equal vacation from work. That open-ended time also means losing pretty much all the structure in my schedule. I need routine in my life to help keep me stable. It keeps my medication schedule and sleep consistent. Routine also helps my brain stay grounded. I already have havoc in my head, so disorder in my environment (whether it be unstructured days off or a messy house) causes me both anxiety and restlessness, both of which can swirl into hypomania. I fight this by keeping busy and planning structed calming activities like taking yoga and meditation classes (or setting aside time for those at home), writing, reading, or listening to a podcast. I combine relaxing, centering “me” time with specific scheduled time slots. That way I have planned, healthy activities that keep my mind grounded.
(4) Keeping Holiday Gifts Simple (Or Eliminating Them Altogether)
Between the lure of shopping for deals on Black Friday to the obligatory purchasing of gifts for friends and family, this is the time of year when resisting the urge to shop is especially hard for everyone. Even if I’m saving money at a thrift store, shopping is one of my weaknesses, and one of my biggest downfalls. When I’m hypomanic, I spend way more money than I should on things I don’t need. The high of buying things often feeds my energy level, and that triggers the compulsive urge to shop that comes with bipolar disorder. I’ve learned to keep myself in check by telling friends and family not to buy me gifts, because I already have pretty much everything I need. I either give simple (often homemade) gifts or I donate money to charities in honor of others. Sometimes I just take my friends out for dinner. That way I’m being generous while maintaining relationships, which are priceless and more valuable than any plastic gadget I could buy. I hate clutter, and in this consumerist society, I feel it’s more meaningful and responsible to own and buy less rather than more.
The key to staying in recovery for me is communication. No matter how far I’ve come, even I can fall victim to a lack of self-awareness or just plain denial when I’m getting hypomanic. Because I’m open with my friends and family, and I have a health care treatment team I can rely on, I know I can reach out if I notice my mood ramping up. Sometimes it’s just as simple as saying to my boyfriend “Wow, I really woke up too early this morning, and I have so much energy. That may mean something.” Just by acknowledging something as simple as my sleep out loud, I stay aware of my behavior. That helps me ensure that an episode won’t gain enough momentum to cause any damage. By letting others know how I’m feeling and what my body is doing, I keep myself connected to others. Isolation is a natural side effect of bipolar disorder. Mood episodes like depression and mania fester in the chasm between myself and others. I need to keep myself from being isolated. By relying on feedback and assistance, I can stay on track.
Whether you’re like me or not, I encourage you to recognize your hypomania triggers and find what works for you, especially if they’re brought on by seasonal or time changes. Now, instead of reacting to my illness, I’m able to manage it and stay ahead of episodes before they start. I never thought I could enjoy the fall without the overwhelming whirlwind of months of hypomania followed by a horrible crash on New Year’s Day. Now I’m able to live a balanced life while enjoying the season I love.