It can be difficult to return to work, make dinner plans, or attend large events if you’ve been home a lot since March 2020. With bipolar disorder, returning to pre-pandemic activities can be exhausting or overwhelming, says Melvin McInnis, M.D., director of the University of Michigan’s bipolar research program.
Creating and sticking to a routine can be difficult when there are so many new ways to spend your time. If you’re worried about returning to work or socializing, here are some expert-approved tips.
1. Get enough sleep.
A regular sleep schedule is important for everyone. Dr. McInnis says getting enough sleep is crucial for people with bipolar disorder.
Dr. David J. Miklowitz, director of the Maxy Gray Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Program at UC Los Angeles, says that if you must commute to work, you should consider how this will affect your sleep habits and adjust your schedule accordingly. “Even if you have to be at work at 7:30 a.m., ease into it,” he said. Delaying sleep and wake times by 15 minutes can help you get ready for a month of early mornings. Once you get used to it, you can move your sleep and wake times back 15 minutes (and continue doing so until you reach your desired time). Changing your schedule gradually is easier than waking up two hours earlier one day.
2. Recharge throughout the day whenever possible.
“I always emphasize personal time and rest,” says Dr. McInnis, noting that many people with bipolar disorder report feeling zapped at night from managing their emotions. Studies show that bipolar people react more strongly to both positive and negative events.
Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, but if you find that common frustration like traffic or rushing to catch a train trigger anger or anxiety, it can be emotionally draining. Before starting any assignments or meetings, Dr. McInnis suggests taking 5 or 10 minutes for yourself. You can use this time to meditate, listen to music, or do anything else that helps you relax. Also, take breaks throughout the day to decompress.
3. Set limits if necessary.
If you have a history of manic episodes, going from social isolation to seeing friends five days a week can be overwhelming and even too stimulating. If you’re worried about feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Miklowitz advises taking it slowly. “Step in rather than dive,” he advises.
Just in case you forgot, it’s perfectly fine to choose your activities with your mental health in mind. If you prefer dinner with friends over large events, for whatever reason (bipolar disorder or not), you can set those boundaries. If you’re worried about doing too much in one week, causing schedule conflicts or overstimulation, you should limit the number of events you add to your calendar. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and you may be perfectly fine going to large gatherings or seeing friends frequently after work. Because COVID-19 delta cases are spreading across the US, you may be concerned about getting sick even if you’ve been vaccinated. In that case, consider wearing a mask indoors and taking precautions in public.
Working in an office may come with added social obligations, such as daily lunches with coworkers. Dr. Miklowitz advises setting boundaries early on, such as “I’m still getting used to being back at work and will pass this time.” Everyone has different comfort levels and needs, so how you approach this will vary.
4. Make a wellness plan.
Work with your therapist or psychiatrist to develop a wellness plan. Together, you can plan how to return to work and socialize while maintaining your mental health. After acclimating to the workplace, some people may require higher doses of medication, Dr. Miklowitz says.
The plan also includes being aware of your personal triggers, such as lack of sleep. These include warning signs that occur before a mood episode, such as rapid speech, as well as what steps to take if any of these occur.
Share this plan with someone you trust and let them know you need help if they notice any of your warning signs. “Do you want them to take you out to eat or to a doctor’s appointment? “Getting to a pharmacy can seem impossible when you’re depressed,” Dr. Miklowitz says.
5. Attend to your mental health support system regularly.
Dr. McInnis says weekly plans with a close friend or family member can be reassuring. Their support and validation can go a long way. A 2019 study published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal found that bipolar patients who talked to a family member for two weeks felt more in control of their condition.
To help you cope with anxiety, depression, and other emotions that may arise during the transition, Dr. Miklowitz suggests regular sessions with a therapist. He advises those seeking therapy to schedule a consultation to learn more about the therapist’s experience with bipolar disorder. If you have health insurance, ask your provider for a list of local therapists. Or look for sliding-scale providers on websites like Open Path. Dr. Miklowitz recommends joining a support group to learn how others dealing with similar issues are coping. In addition, the National Alliance on Mental Illness may be able to connect you with local bipolar disorder support groups.
It’s okay if you’re not ready to return to your pre-pandemic lifestyle. “Set boundaries and create a safe environment,” Dr. Miklowitz advises.