I firmly believe lifestyle factors are just as important as medication for living well with Bipolar Disorder. Sunlight, alcohol or drugs, nutrition, social connection, nature, repetitive thoughts, meditation and exercise are just a few of the lifestyle factors that can alter brain chemistry, for better or worse. I am someone who has rapid cycling Bipolar Disorder. I cannot take antidepressants because they push me into a mixed or manic episode. For me, medication has done very little for the depressive side of the disorder, and it did not seem to prevent mixed states or hypomania. Thankfully medication prevented full-blown mania, but I still frequently towed the line between hypomania and mania. So, over the years, I have had to learn to manage the majority of my Bipolar Disorder through lifestyle means. The beauty of this is I have found power in the little choices I make each and every day.
One example of environmental factors that stands out for me is sunlight. This is more concretely shown with light therapy lamps. These devices are meant to add light to treat seasonal affective disorder. They specifically say in the insert to use caution with Bipolar Disorder. While most people can easily do 15-60 minutes, sometimes more without adverse effects, I am unable to do more than five minutes at a time. Usually 30 seconds is plenty! More often than not, it is unwise for me to use them. When I use a light therapy lamp it is like I have had an entire pot of coffee! I am wired!! This can quickly push me into a mixed episode if I am depressed, and begin to interfere with my sleep. It demonstrates very clearly that an environmental factor as “simple” as light has profound impacts on brain chemistry.
Another example is positive social connection. When severely depressed, it seemed like connecting with loved ones did nothing to change my mood. However, the more I practiced being fully present with others, the more I found that even in the depths of depression, positive social connection could shift my mood. It may have only lasted moments, but those moments added up. The more of them I had, the sooner I seemed to climb out of depression. Ultimately, from what we ingest to what we surround ourselves with, there are countless examples of how our lifestyle can shift our energy and the way we feel. Lifestyle alters our brain chemistry. While the disorder may be trying to pull the brain chemistry back to its episodic baseline, we are empowered to make consistent small choices that draw it towards balance.
While medication has a clear and important role in the management of Bipolar Disorder, there is so much more we can be doing to manage our health. There is power at the tips of our fingers. Our day-to-day choices can change our brain chemistry for the better. It has taken me years to build habitual daily choices that serve me and my mental health. In my youth, I wanted to be “normal” like my friends. I partied at the expense of my mental health. I began living a life of sobriety at the end of 2019, and have unearthed the mental health benefits of doing so. I personally love variety and strongly disliked routine. It took time (and perhaps aging a bit) to find a routine that worked with me, and to incorporate variety that worked well for my mental health. Instead of drastically varying my bed times, I vary my choices of hobbies, for example. I am not saying it is easy, nor am I saying we have control over our mental health. What I have found, however, is we do have a lot of power and choice. Lifestyle can be the key to unlocking a more balanced and fulfilling life with Bipolar Disorder.