Curbing Bipolar Overreactions

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;

  • crying
  • 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)
  • art
  • cooking
  • 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!

15 responses to “Curbing Bipolar Overreactions

  1. Those are awesome ideas, and they’d almost certainly work for anyone having difficulty appropriately dealing with a rough emotional circumstance. I know I do some of things on a fairly regular basis myself, for pretty much the same reasons.

  2. Such a great post, and exactly what I needed to hear right now. Thanks for the advice!

  3. Reblogged this on Paddling for PEACE. and commented:
    Nailed it!

  4. This is so good. Everything on here made sense to me intuitively, but wasn’t something I’d thought about deliberately, or put into practice intentionally. Also, I really appreciate hearing that there’s someone else out there who occasionally has to walk around in public while crying. This has started happening to me more and more regularly, and I feel so crazy/weird, and feel like I should be able to control myself more. Reading about your experience makes me feel a little bit more normal.

    • Ah yes, walking and crying… riding the bus and crying… eating out and crying… it is something I haven’t been able to get around, sometimes I just can’t stop the water works! I feel like so much of the time, people don’t make any distinction between “controlling it” and “hiding it”. Realistically, if I could control the crying I wouldn’t be unemployed, and while there were times when I opted to hide it I never got anything done. If I have to live my life this way, I can’t stop doing the things I need to do -and sometimes that just means taking the emotions out with me! Thanks!

  5. Reblogged this on Poetry and Hums and commented:
    So much of this made sense to me intuitively, but wasn’t something I’ve been practicing intentionally. I get triggered easily these days, and this is a great system for managing those overreactions. (Although I’m not sure how I feel about the word “overreaction.” It has a negative connotation, implying that because a reaction is higher than how the average person would react, it is therefore less valid. )

    • I think your concerns are definitely valid! As someone who writes about experiences that can be difficult to convey it can be quite a task to find words (and sometimes there aren’t words) that are accurate enough to describe our experiences. I think much of the language needed to describe our experiences is still being created (as people begin opening up about themselves and realize there is a big gap in verbiage). I try to spend less time worrying about those language potholes and more time trying to convey an idea… sometimes that means using crude, raw, or verbiage that may not fit perfectly. If I didn’t, I’m the sort of person that wouldn’t be able to write at all. It has taken me many years to be able to step back enough from OCD to realize that even though what I’ve written isn’t “perfect”, it is still worth passing on. Thanks!!

      • Definitely! I didn’t mean to criticize you, I was just thinking about the way that language can have those connotations. I’m kind of word-nerdy. But I use words I don’t particularly like as well, it’s impossible not to.

  6. Thank you so much for “untriggered mood epidsodes beyond our control.” Why is it so hard for me to see it like that? Or other people? Like there has to be a reason. Gah! I appreciate your tips for reducing the blow-outs. Seem helpful to me!

    • I even recently had a therapist who didn’t believe me when I said my episodes were sometimes “triggered by nothing”, it left me pretty baffled and annoyed, knowing she didn’t really understand what I was dealing with! At the same time, my psychiatrist agrees 100% that episodes can be triggered simply by the disorder “cycling” (naturally switching things up). He has about five times the amount of schooling and experience the therapist did, so that was a bit validating!

      • I may have had a hard time staying with that therapist, because essentially what she’s saying is “you’re lying!” I know you are a very careful mood-charter, and that if something had triggered it, you would know! My pdoc agrees with yours. Sometimes it’s stress, sure, but not every time.

  7. I can relate to this so much… Thank you for writing this, I feel less alone!

  8. Reblogged this on Marie Abanga's Blog and commented:
    Woah, l am learning so much each day, and in the process, understanding my own self better each day. Yes, ignorance is terrible, just as disgustful as the disease. Thx Payaak for spotting and reblogging this.

  9. So what do you do when you don’t experience a “delayed” enough reaction that you can do anything about it? Some reactions you get enough “early warning time” that you can consciously identify it and go isolate yourself. What I’m struggling with are the ones where I don’t have that time. Those are the ones that are wrecking my relationships. Those are the ones that make me feel miserable as a person with this illness ( as well as those who I am closest to in relationships) I just want it to go away. I’m so tired of all this. Once the unstoppable almost unconscious reaction takes place, the damage has been done. Then its just the guilt, shame and sense of failure from not being able to prevent it or stop it in the first place. This is what SUCKS about all this illness. Even the people who you love and that love you ( friends, co-workers, significant others) just think you are unhappy, angry and mean spirited. I don’t want to be perceived that way. That is not who I am or want to be perceived as and I refuse to let this illness define me this much. Will there ever be a day when this stops. I just want to be like all the other “normal” people out there who just get frustrated or mad every once in a while. Not someone who has the potential to looses it every day or every week. I think about it, I journal about it, I keep a mood chart (morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night for everyday – its exhausting and it doesn’t work) I think about reacting all day long, while I’m driving my car, when I answer the phone, when I go get my kids at school. I constantly tell myself “look for the thing that will trigger you, careful, watch for it, don’t let it happen, be nice, don’t be a bitch.” There are some days I can write in my daily mood chart ” it was a good day no failures” and then there are those days that are a total mess and equate to total failure in the eyes of everyone I’m in relationship with. If I don’t think about it every second of every day something goes wrong. Even when I do, it still goes wrong.

    So, I guess I accept that the reactions where my mind can’t see it coming are just going to happen and this is the illness. I will just feel guilty, ashamed and spend my life apologizing. Well, that is disheartening. No one in my world wants to put up with that including me.

  10. That is exactly what I have learned to do too. There are times when I am in the store and realize how angry I am at everybody and even the music. It’s not them, it’s me. I go to my car, take my medicine and breathe. There’s usually a crying jag in there too. I don’t immediately drive off because I know I’m not in a clear steady state of mine. So relieved to hear this from someone else too. I have learned and will say it again, bipolars know and understand better than anyone else, except God of course. He is helping me to learn more and more how to make it work for me and not against me. Thanks for sharing❤ may God richly bless you

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