When it comes to bipolar disorder, it can be hard to discern which type of mood episode is more harmful in any given situation; the moods that pop up sporadically without warning or the big overreactions that can happen in response to a stressful situation.
I think for most people, understanding that bipolar disorder includes un-triggered mood episodes outside of our control is simple enough to attribute to the disorder itself.
But what about overreactions? These big mood flare ups have often been a bigger source of trouble for me when it has come to my relationships with other people, because it can become easy for others to write these actions off to “a dramatic personality”. It can be difficult for people to separate a mood disorder from what our culture has been putting on a pedestal (via reality television); the drama queen.
For this reason, it has become important over the years for me to learn to adapt in situations where big emotional overreactions might take place and find a solid method to curb those overreactions (or express them safely) so that my boss, my co-workers, my family, and friends aren’t subject to a toxic emotional blow-up.
Having said that, I don’t claim to have a 100% success rate. I definitely still blow up at people, but having a strategy in mind when these situations come up has helped me funnel most of my blow ups in such a way that I’m no longer destroying as many relationships because of them. Obviously, this is a system that tends to work for me, and though I can’t say for certain that it will work for everyone else, it is a good place to begin if you are interested in putting your own system in place to curb overreactions.
Alright! Here we go!
Step 1: Isolate
A lot of the time I am lucky and experience a delayed reaction when it comes to overreactions. I can put on a serious face while getting bad news, and it isn’t until 10-60 minutes later that I often experience the explosion of emotions that come after. This has been helpful because in that time I can seek out a “safe place” to be when the emotional wave hits me. In public or at work that generally means finding a restroom as quickly as possible, but that could also be as simple as removing myself from a group and stepping outdoors, or into a garage; any space where I am alone.
This tends to be a bit more difficult when I am in a situation where I am extremely reactive, or immediately angry at something someone has said to me. Though my success is not quite as good when it comes to curbing these types of overreactions, it can still be extremely beneficial to just turn and walk away. Walk away and isolate, again; garage, the front porch, or a restroom can all help out.
Step 2: Purge (safely)
Once alone I move on to the “purge” phase, which simply means expressing my emotions in a healthy way. The idea is to get as much of that excess emotion out as quickly as I can and do so in a safe way.
Here are some of the safe ways that help me express my emotions in these situations;
- screaming into a pillow
- punching a pillow
- crumpling paper or leaves
- writing out my feelings in a journal, on paper or a napkin
- calling the crisis line to talk to someone
- calling my therapist to talk to someone
- calling my boyfriend (who is good at diffusing these situations)
These are just a few ideas, but there are many more ways to express what you’re feeling in a safe way. Personally, in these situations I tend to avoid calling most friends or relatives because when I am upset I can often say some very upsetting things. I have learned from experience that it is best for me to express my frustrations (or whatever I’m upset about) to a licensed professional who is familiar with mental illness, or to someone who knows that I am just having a blow-out and (usually) not a full-blown crisis.
There are days where crying is enough and I feel good enough to resume whatever my previous activity was afterward. Other days I need to do more (especially if there is anger or desperation involved) or I might need someone to talk me down.
Step 3: Walk
Getting out the emotion and the swirling vortex of thoughts is important, but for me I usually need to also expel a big wave of physical discomfort/energy as well. Failing to rid myself of the energy or tenseness that came with the emotions often results in the emotional wave coming back around for a second go. The easiest way I have found to do this is to go for a walk.
Walking gives my body a chance to relax through gentle exercise. The fresh air often makes me feel more calm, and being outdoors can change my perception from feeling “trapped” in a bad situation or with bad news to feeling much more free.
Certainly it is possible to combine steps 2 and 3, and sometimes I do (though I usually wear sunglasses in the city so people can’t tell I’m crying). Typically though I like feeling like I’m in a “safe place” while letting my emotions out, and it can be a big bummer when you’re trying to release an emotional meltdown and someone with a clipboard is trying to get you to fund a program for rescued dogs (oh the city!).
Usually I can see a drastic improvement in my mood after even as little as 15 minutes of walking. I tend to go on a lot longer than that if I have a choice (just because it helps me so much) but I know when folks are working or in school it can be difficult to be away too long.
I like to walk to music but I’ve made special playlists limited to upbeat, positive songs for these situations. I try to avoid any music that is too emotional during these times because they tend to have a big impact on my mood, and the whole point of this exercise is to improve my mood, not shift it to an equally dubious place.
Step 4: Distract
The one thing I can do to undo everything I have done up to this point is allow my focus to shift back to what upset me in the first place. That means when I return to whatever it was I was doing before the overreaction, I need a distraction. Really, it can be anything that keeps my mind away from obsessing about what just happened.
This could be anything from…
- a game
- a conversation
- a piece of work that requires my full attention
- music (again, upbeat)
- giving blood (I used that as a distraction once at the office, it worked great!)
Seriously, anything that takes my mind off of what upset me is a winner. Ultimately, if I don’t distract myself well enough, I run the risk of having another overreaction triggered solely by the thoughts I have about the original situation!
I know this system isn’t perfect, but when I use it I find that I often feel much better anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour later. I know that might still sound like a lot of time, but when these overreactions were causing meltdowns for me that were lasting all day (or triggering bigger episodes lasting days or weeks) I can safely say I’ve seen a big improvement overall in rational time after overreacting vs. irrational time overreacting.
Sometimes it is also important to remind those around us that massive overreactions can be an equally difficult part of bipolar disorder. Even my boyfriend (who has six years of bipolar-girlfriend experience at this point) asked me on Friday why I spent an hour crying, and then an hour walking after we got some distressing news about our prospective new apartment. Somehow he was still baffled that I reacted that way after all this time… all I could do was explain that overreactions like this just come with the territory. It is one of those things I wish I could stop (before it even begins) but it has never worked that way for me.
Instead I have to do the things that I can to get those overreactions out of my system in a safe way so I can move on to doing the things I’d rather be doing!