Be Like a Slinky: 8 Tips For Building Resilience When You Have Bipolar Disorder

Resilience is defined as “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens” or “the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.” If you want a real-world example of something that’s resilient, think of a Slinky.

I think it’s fair to say that those of us with bipolar disorder have had our fair share of pulling, stretching, and bending. So how do we build our capacity to “return to our original shape” more easily after setbacks and challenges – including being diagnosed and living with bipolar disorder? How do we become more like a Slinky?

Last month I had two opportunities to explore that question. First, I presented at a conference for professional counselors on the topic of preventing burnout. Part of my presentation was strategies for building resilience (which is important for mental health professionals as well as clients). Second, I attended a seminar on cognitive behavior therapy by one of its founders, Dr. Donald Meichenbaum. In that seminar, Meichenbaum shared strategies from his practical and user-friendly book, “Roadmap to Resilience.”

Here are some tips for becoming more resilient (in my last post I shared ways to recognize and develop your strengths – although the emphasis of that post was on work, those tips are also relevant to building resilience):

1. Increase positive emotions. You can increase resilience by experiencing a 3 to 1 ratio of positive to negative emotions. Just to be clear, mania and hypomania don’t count as positive emotions – they’re not actually emotions, but states. Examples of positive emotions are enjoyment, calmness, and gratitude. So how do you increase positive emotions? Here are a few ways:

  • Do something you typically enjoy. Make a list of pleasurable activities, and do at least one per day.
  • Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and think about a positive emotion word (like “calm” or “peace”), something you’re grateful for, or a “safe place” (real or imaginary).
  • Watch funny movies or YouTube videos.

2. Learn to self-soothe. Self-soothing is an important skill for bouncing back after upsetting events. You can self-soothe through the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Sensory experiences send the message to the brain that there’s no current emergency. Experiment and make a list of self-soothing activities that work for you. Here are a few examples:

  • Listen to some calming music while using a heating pad or wrap and sipping a cup of herbal tea. 
  • Take a warm bath with bubbles, scented candles, or aromatherapy oils.
  • Go for a walk and pay attention to the sights of trees and flowers, the sounds of birds, and the feelings of the sun and breeze on your skin

3. Develop mindfulness. By practicing mindfulness, you learn to live in the present moment – rather than dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. You learn to see thoughts as just thoughts – instead of assuming they are facts or believing you have to react to them. You learn to just observe difficult emotions –  as opposed to pushing them away or stuffing them down. There are lots of different kinds of mindfulness practices. Mindfulness For Dummies is a good place to start. Or you can check out the resources page at Mindful.

4. Take care of yourself. Self-care is important for everybody, but it’s critical for people with bipolar disorder. Self-care includes a good diet, sleep, exercise, regular routines, and leisure activities. Through good self-care, you recharge your batteries and are able to keep going in the face of difficulties. If you’re someone who tends to take care of others but not yourself, remember what flight attendants tell you: secure your own oxygen mask first, then assist others.

5. Get social support. The support of other people can provide a cushion when you fall – and make it easier to get back up and keep going. Seek out positive, supportive people and develop good relationships with them. Try to avoid spending time with negative people, or those with bad habits like alcohol or drug abuse. Also try to get some type of structured support, for example:

  • Get an individual therapist (I gave some ideas for low-cost counseling in my last post), and/or participate in a therapy group.
  • Join a support group (such as those through NAMI or DBSA), attend an appropriate 12-step program, or participate in an online support group or forum.
  • Improve your relationships with significant others through couples or family counseling, communication skills classes, or assertiveness training.

6. Tell a new story. Ultimately, you are free to view what happens in your life how you choose. You have the power to see the events and circumstances of your life through a different lens – and retell your story with a positive, empowering spin. You can decide to look at yourself as a strong survivor instead of a weak victim. To construct a story of resilience, you can start by asking yourself these questions:

  • As a result of adversities you’ve experienced, what strengths have you developed?
  • What do you understand better about yourself, other people, or the world?
  • What positive meaning is there in what’s happened in your life?

7. Give a gift to others. Helping others who have gone through similar things can help you move on. It gets you out of your own mind, empowers you, and creates meaning and purpose. There are lots of ways to help. You can tell your story of resilience to others and give them hope. You can write, educate, mentor, counsel, or perform. You can volunteer at an organization like IBPF, NAMI, or DBSA.

8. Be spiritual. Spirituality is good for physical and mental health. It can be a source of hope, optimism, and strength. If you’re firm in your spiritual beliefs and worldview, you can more easily rebound from stress. Spirituality helps you focus on something greater than yourself – and not as much on your own concerns. Spirituality means different things to different people, but it has to do with how you find meaning, purpose, and depth in life. It may involve prayer, meditation, service, ritual, music, nature, or other things.

I hope these tips help you become more resilient in your battle with bipolar disorder and other adversities. Building resilience takes ongoing practice. Make small changes, little by little – the most important thing is to hang in there and never give up.

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