7 Ways I’m Protecting My Mental Health In These Challenging Times

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This is just my personal opinion.

OK, I’m not going to lie. I’ve been feeling anxious with all the recent news about the COVID-19. I feel overwhelmed with the daily announcements about event cancellations, empty store shelves, and of course, the fatalities. Because I have bipolar disorder, I tend to be especially sensitive to routine changes, bad news, and just general external triggers. Even people who don’t have underlying mental illness or anxiety issues are experiencing extreme stress right now.

My initial reaction was pretty mellow. I thought, “Alright, this is serious, but I shouldn’t freak out.” But then my email inbox started filling up with communications from what seemed like every company or organization I’ve ever been connected to or done business with. From my local grocery store to my credit card companies and even my bipolar support groups, it looked like the whole world around me was falling apart. I suddenly felt like I was living in a post-apocalyptic zombie outbreak horror movie. I was not a happy camper. I had a horrible nightmare last week that I caught the virus, and I died in the dream. Not fun.

I also made a big mistake: I became a news junkie. I started listening to NPR all day and watching the news at night. My obsession with current events comes in waves. When something big is going on, I immerse myself in the news. I’m like an addict, just waiting for the next catastrophic announcement like I’m chasing my next high, even when that rush isn’t pleasurable. I watched the Kavanaugh and the impeachment hearings from start to finish. Lately, I’ve been following every press conference about the corona virus.

Because I have bipolar disorder, obsessive behavior is pretty typical for me. I frequently take things to the extreme. If I see a film that interests me, I find and watch every single movie by the same director. I often experience compulsions to explore morbid news stories. In 2015, when the suicidal Germanwings co-pilot deliberately flew a plane full of innocent passengers into a mountain, I felt compelled to read every related article I could get my hands on. I thought and talked about it constantly. I spent an unhealthy amount of time researching and watching videos and reading articles.

This preoccupation is dangerous. It threatens my mental stability. I’ve been feeling agitated and fearful; drowning in anxious thoughts—as was made evident by my recent nightmare. The barrage of bulletins surrounding this recent pandemic has been like pouring gasoline on the fire that is my bipolar disorder.

So, in light of all the advice out there telling me how to protect myself physically, I’m putting emphasis on my mental health. COVID-19 is not as dangerous to me as letting my bipolar disorder spin out of control. I’ve already survived one suicide attempt, and I’m not about to let myself spiral into a manic or depressive episode again. I can exercise control over this. I’ve outlined seven things that are currently helping me weather this storm.

(1) Limiting my news exposure
I’m on hiatus from scrolling through my phone’s news feed. Instead of streaming NPR every day while I’m working, I’ve switched to music. Now, I listen to relaxing classic jazz to keep myself sane and stable. Music soothes my mind and keeps me calm. If I feel the need to know what’s going on, I’ll allow myself 5 minutes at a time to scan the headlines. I won’t go overboard by spending hours digging deeper into long news stories or health updates that are simply repeating the same information. I quickly glean what I need and move on. The last thing I need to do right now is ruminate. Historically, that leads to depression, at least with me. I’m also archiving all the incoming COVID-19 email updates. I can read them later if needed but reading them all right now is just going to make me more anxious.

(2) Practicing mindfulness
I recently wrote an article about how yoga helps my state of mind. Aside from the obvious physical benefits, I also find yoga incredibly grounding. It strengthens my core in more ways than one. Both yoga and meditation force me to slow down, focus on my breathing, and pay attention to my body. They enable me to practice mindfulness, which has been immeasurably powerful in my journey through recovery. Mindfulness is a simple way to clear my mind, making it much easier to keep things in perspective. The best thing about yoga and meditation is they can be done at home. I can easily avoid exposing myself to public spaces if I feel that’s necessary. I bought a yoga mat on Amazon for less than $12, and my yoga studio now has online classes. There are also literally thousands of free mindfulness resources available online. I’m a huge fan of Thich Nhat Hanh’s dharma talks and guided meditations (plus he totally has an ASMR voice, which is like icing on the cake).

(3) Self-soothing
Simple pleasures can have a huge impact on my happiness. Self-soothing is a very useful tool to help me stay balanced. Petting my cats is one of the best forms of therapy I’ve found. Little things can make a big difference in my mood. Taking a relaxing bath, sipping a cup of herbal (non-caffeinated – because caffeine is a stimulant) tea, or going on a walk can brighten my day and remind me how beautiful the world can be. These things may seem insignificant, but trust me, they’re effective. I encourage you to find what works best for you. Just the act of doing something nice for myself can be therapeutic, because it feels good to know I’m nurturing my soul.

(4) Getting enough sleep
Stress and anxiety take a huge toll on me. When I’m upset, I have a hard time falling and staying asleep. I toss and turn and sweat and have bad dreams. I cannot stress enough how crucial adequate sleep is to recovery, especially when it comes to bipolar disorder. Lack of sleep is one of the fastest ways to trigger a manic episode. To add insult to injury, I recently had to set all my clocks forward an hour, so the extra daylight causes an upset in my already precariously balanced routine. Over the years, I’ve learned how to practice good sleep hygiene.

I have a three-pronged approach to healthy and restful sleep:

(1) Eyes: I wear an eye mask every night to keep myself in restful darkness, and I also use room-darkening curtains in my room. Too much light disrupts my circadian rhythms, and that wreaks havoc on my ability to get a restful amount of shut-eye.

(2) Ears: I have a white noise machine by my bed (there are loads of free white noise phone apps available if you don’t have one). The soothing sound helps drown out my racing thoughts. Sometimes I switch it up and listen to calming rain or relaxing ocean waves.

(3) Mind: I don’t watch stimulating TV shows or movies in the hour before I go to sleep. I strictly avoid exposing myself to any news. I don’t look at my emails. Instead, I watch nature shows. Recently, I’ve been indulging in British television’s Time Team, a documentary show about archeology. Strangely enough, an episode I saw last week featured a veteran who overcame his PTSD by watching their team of scientists “dig a hole and see what was in it.” Most episodes are available on Amazon Prime, and some are even on YouTube for free. Plus, there are twenty whole seasons, so I’m not likely to run out anytime soon.

(5) Maintaining a schedule, even when routine has gone out the window
The coronavirus pandemic has really thrown a monkey wrench into my life. I’m not working, so I have nothing to do all day. I’m self-isolating, so I can’t leave the house. I need routine to stay stable. So, I’ve created a self-imposed schedule. I wake up at the same time every day, get dressed, eat breakfast, and write for a few hours. Then after lunch I do some light house cleaning, paint, and do an hour of yoga. I’m giving myself things to do, so I feel I have purpose. Just because I don’t have a list of obligations imposed on me by a job or social engagements doesn’t mean I can’t keep myself moving with scheduled, predictable tasks, as well as enjoyable creative projects to stimulate my mind.

(6) Unplugging
In 2019, I wrote an article about the importance of unplugging. Sometimes I just have to turn off my phone if I want to feel stable. Whether I’m being blasted with news, or updates about social obligations, it can feel like the world is pressing down on me when I hear the repetitive alerts from my digital devices. Taking a break from technology alleviates my stress and allows my brain to slow down to a manageable speed. Quieting my phone lets me quiet my mind.

(7) Remembering that this is temporary
Because I have bipolar disorder, I have an especially hard time seeing anything as temporary. My mind naturally goes to extremes even in everyday situations. That’s just how I’m wired. With me, I see things as “all or nothing,” and I frequently use words like “always” and “never.”

When I was in my early twenties, I was waiting tables at a chain restaurant. I hated that job. The customers were rude, and my manager was cold and uncaring. It was a summer job. I knew it wouldn’t last more than a few months.  And yet at the time, I felt like I’d be there forever. Every day, I struggled to drag myself into work. I took it personally whenever one of the restaurant patrons was condescending. That’s just how lots of people treat service industry workers. It’s wrong, but it wasn’t personal. And I just couldn’t see an end in sight. I felt hopeless and miserable.

Flash forward to now. With this pandemic, I’ve found my thoughts snowballing. I imagined end-of-the-world scenarios. I pictured myself being stuck inside my house for years. I had thoughts like “this is the beginning of the end,” and “this is going to change humanity and we’re all doomed.” But if I’ve learned anything from therapy, it’s this: DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK. Just because I think that way doesn’t mean it’s true. My brain is chemically built to catastrophize even normal situations. With this pandemic, my mental illness has been amplified. I have to keep telling myself not to listen to that little voice in my head. That little voice is a liar. I’m here to tell you, now, if you’re having these thoughts, don’t let them consume you. Things may change as a result of all this, but in the end, humanity will get through it, and this isn’t going to last forever. Look at China. They’re already recovering now that they’ve had some time to get a handle on things. We will all get through this.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Yes, I’m washing my hands with soap and water for twenty seconds. Yes, I’m physically practicing social isolation, but I’m spending more time on the phone and video chatting with friends and family, so I can still feel connected. I need to feel I’m not alone in this. Above all else, I’m taking my mental health seriously. I’m attending to my specific needs by caring for myself. These are just a few things I’ve been trying to keep in mind and practice during this turbulent time. Most importantly, I can reach out for help if I start feeling overwhelmed. I can call my health care team if I need to. I don’t have to suffer in silence. If I stay vigilant by remembering that because I have bipolar disorder, I have unique sensitivities and reactions, I’ll be able to stay in recovery. No matter what’s going on around me, my mental health is just as important as my physical health.

If you’d like a bit of positive news in light of all this tumultuous news, read this.

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