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Living with Bipolar: Mania During Lockdown

Being thrown into a pandemic came as a shock to most people, especially to those who like to stick to routines and structure. For many people with mental health conditions, stress is one of the main things that can trigger internal struggles – combined with stay-at-home orders and general lifestyle shifts, it’s easy to slip away from your healthy normal state right now. If you live with Bipolar Disorder, you may feel like you’re constantly waiting for the next mood shift. Even if you’re on the lookout for signs, it can be hard to recognize mania (or hypomania, a milder form of mania) as we all live through something we’ve never dealt with before. Whether you’re facing mania for the first time or the tenth, you may feel like you’re playing a new game.

Identifying Mania

In a lot of ways, mania can feel good, especially when it comes after a depressive episode. This can make it hard to acknowledge it yourself – anything feels better than the hopelessness of depression. For many, mania starts mildly, so it can be easy to slip into it without noticing; it’s usually easier to pick up on it in retrospect. During COVID-19, a lot of us are experiencing a different lifestyle than ever before, which can make it difficult to both identify your symptoms and to rely on ways of managing your condition that may have worked before.

What dysfunction or crisis looks like for you during the COVID-19 pandemic might be different than what it looked like last year – all you can compare it to are now outdated experiences. Everyone is different, so it’s important to know your typical way of functioning. Since COVID-19 started, what does daily life look like for you, and what is outside of that range? Consider your thoughts, behaviors, habits, and relationships. Maybe you’re typically very logical but lately you’ve been making a lot of rash decisions. Or you don’t make impulsive purchases often and suddenly you’ve racked up a high credit card bill. If you’ve noticed new patterns in your thoughts or actions recently, it’s worth thinking about if they might be related to your bipolar – if these aren’t signs of mania you’ve experienced in the past, you may not make the connection immediately.

High energy is one of the main markers of mania, but that doesn’t always come through as excitement or euphoria. It can also fuel anger and rage, particularly at a time when there are a lot of stressors to manage. Many people have very valid reasons to feel angry or otherwise fired up right now. Finding the line between what is a reasonable reaction to the world right now and what may be a sign of mania can be difficult. Take a step back from your feelings and look at how your moods and behaviors are impacting the people around you. Is it causing conflict in your relationships? Is the rage you feel shared by others, or is it a disproportional response to what happened? If you find yourself regularly feeling like you’re under attack, or seeing a different reality than others, those might be signs that your emotional responses are more intense than most peoples’.

The pandemic hasn’t just changed how people experience mania; it’s also exacerbated some of the common traps of mental health conditions (like loneliness and isolation) while simultaneously taking away certain coping mechanisms, like working out at the gym or going out to dinner with friends after a long week. A lot of mania is rooted in increased energy and with COVID-19, most people aren’t very active right now – so while that energy keeps building up, there’s less opportunity to release it through physical activity or face to face interactions.

These feelings and behaviors don’t necessarily mean you’re manic right now or that you have Bipolar Disorder – almost everyone is feeling on edge and the occasional impulse buy isn’t necessarily a cause for concern (online shopping has been a popular stress reliever for many people during the pandemic). Recognizing mania is more about noticing consistent differences from your typical mood or behaviors and how that shift is impacting your life.

Managing Mania During COVID-19

You may not feel like you need to deal with your mania, but left unchecked, it can spiral out of control and turn into destructive choices. Just like your mania may be showing up differently than usual right now, there’s a good chance that some of your go-to coping skills won’t work in these circumstances either. We’re in a crisis and everything you’re doing is happening within this new context – if something isn’t working, that doesn’t mean you’re failing or getting worse. The circumstances that COVID-19 has brought on (stress, financial struggles, loneliness, etc.) are all risk factors for Bipolar Disorder (and other mental health conditions), so there’s no need to feel shame about trying out methods that you haven’t before.  

Reevaluate your routines.

Routines provide us with structure and help many people feel like their daily life is more stable, especially during a time like this. If you’re experiencing a manic episode or feel like one may be coming, find ways to add routines in your life. Maybe you already have a routine and it’s not working – that doesn’t mean none will! Think about what you want to get out of a routine (more productive mornings, more relaxed evenings, etc.) and build one from there.

Remove negative stimuli if possible.

Outside factors can have a tremendous impact on our mental health. We can’t get rid of the pandemic, but there may be other things that are adding to your distress, like an overwhelming workload or unhealthy relationship. Allow yourself to listen to how you’re feeling and see if you can make other changes – some factors in your life may have been stressors to begin with.

Find ways to release energy.

It’s important to let out all the energy you’re feeling in a productive way. We hold energy and tension physically in our bodies, making exercise a great way to discharge those built up feelings. Some people find grounding exercises to be helpful during manic episodes. Think about what else works for you to decompress – cleaning the kitchen, going for a walk, blasting your favorite music – and utilize those things to set yourself up for better feelings. 

Start seeing a therapist.

There’s so much happening in the world right now – therapy can help you process what’s going on and your feelings about it all. And by bringing in an objective person who understands mania, it’s likely they’ll be able to help you spot some behavior patterns to work on as well. If you’re already in therapy and it’s not working all that well, mention your concerns to your therapist (remember, they can only help you to their fullest if you’re honest with them) or consider finding a new therapist. Most sessions are being done by video or phone right now – learn more about teletherapy here.

Consider making medication changes.

Many people find mood stabilizers or other medications helpful in managing bipolar – both the highs and the lows. It can be more reliable and quicker than testing out new coping skills to figure out what works for you. If you’re working to manage your symptoms but still feel constant high energy, it may be a good time to consider starting medication or revisit your medication plan. If you already take something, talk to your provider about making a change or increasing the dosage. And know that you don’t have to stay on medication forever if you don’t want to; it can be a temporary solution as you work to find other methods that help you feel your best. 

Many people are feeling like life is out of their control these days and if you’re dealing with mania, you may feel like you’re losing control over your own behaviors, too. It can be scary, but there are ways to help bring mind and energy down to be your best self. For more information and support on Bipolar Disorder and mania, check out the resources on MHA’s screening platform. Want some immediate, personal support? Text MHA to 741-741 or call the Disaster Distress Helpline at (800) 985-5990 to reach a trained crisis counselor 24/7.