Giving Someone With Bipolar Disorder Bad News Safely

I’ve had a number of people tell me lately that they don’t feel comfortable telling me bad news. The idea that people close to me are hiding serious issues from me because they are afraid of triggering my bipolar disorder is extremely frustrating; while I appreciate that people are trying to be wary of my feelings, the plan almost always backfires. Hearing bad news and that the people closest to me have been hiding it makes for an even bigger mood implosion.

The best I can do is try to convey that I realize I have trouble processing bad news, but the manner in which that news is passed on to me has a huge impact on my reaction.

When frightening or serious news is dropped in my lap suddenly (without warning) it can feel significantly more shocking; likewise if the conversation ends moments later (and I haven’t been able to ask any questions or begin to wrap my head around the news) I often find myself trapped in emotional quicksand. The more I struggle to understand on my own, the faster I sink into depression, anxiety, and irritability.

Through my experiences I have devised some tips to help ease some of the emotional reaction in situations regarding passing-on upsetting news. Personally, these things have all lent themselves to a much more safe emotional environment and a quicker recovery from intense bipolar emotional reactions.

1. Be up-front that the news might be distressing.

Letting someone know that a conversation is going to take a serious turn (instead of taking the turn suddenly) can make serious news much less jarring. There is something to be said about being able to prepare oneself mentally before receiving bad or serious news, and part of what contributes to a bad emotional reaction in my case has often been feeling blindsided and totally unprepared to hear something jarring.

Having said that, I have found even very broad, general statements like, “I have something serious to tell you,” or “can we have a serious talk?” are effective in this arena. If I know I might be at risk of having an emotional reaction, I can do a better job of containing myself than if the news is just dropped on me suddenly.

2. Bookend the bad news.

The best way I have found to receive (and give) potentially upsetting news is to bookend the serious subject matter with more lighthearted information. Starting the conversation in a casual way to ease the tension before launching into serious content can help folks feel less anxious about the upcoming serious bit. Probably more importantly (to me anyway) is ending the conversation with something more light-hearted to bring the mood back to the present can help with avoiding being caught up completely in the emotion of the serious bit.

Often hearing bad news can put us in a situation where we feel attacked or fearful, even unsafe. Being able to laugh at a bad joke or talk about a cute puppy really helps nullify that feeling of fear that can be the beginning of a big emotional spiral. In my life, being able to sidestep that fear makes for a totally different reaction to bad news and I am able to focus on counteracting my shock more than having to counteract my fear.

3. Make it a dialogue.

One of the things that really feeds into my fear when I get bad news is being unable to get answers the questions I have about what has happened/is happening. I do not want my mind uncontrollably fantasizing about all of the questions I have (and it will) so being able to ask questions and get answers that I understand makes a big difference in how my reaction will unfold. If we don’t have time to have a dialogue about the topic (and not just be subject to a monologue) then the timing probably isn’t appropriate.

4. Consider timing.

A couple days ago I received some bad news about 15 minutes before I was about to go to bed. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep that night.

Likewise, stress can be a big factor in how reactive my bipolar disorder is in any given situation. Laying some bad news on me when I am already agitated or stressed will yield worse results than providing the same information when I am relatively stable or calm. Again, even in an unstable situation, following tips 1-3 can pave the way for a better reaction.

5. Life happens.

Life is full of good news and bad news, that is just the way it goes. Unfortunately, living with bipolar disorder can make getting bad news extremely disruptive to our lives and our relationships, but pretending that bad news doesn’t exist doesn’t help us learn to cope with our reactive nature or practice living a full life.

Ultimately, I want to believe that the people in my life are genuine with me and open about their lives and their experiences. Honestly, in times where I could tell people close to me were holding back bad news it felt almost more maddening than if they had just been honest! Though this is an area that is very sensitive for many people with bipolar disorder, being gentle about the subject matter and being respectful to our situation when being open with us can mean a world of difference -not just for us, but also for our relationships.

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2 responses to “Giving Someone With Bipolar Disorder Bad News Safely

  1. Just Plain Ol' Vic

    Great post and I think you are spot on!

    On a positive note, this article made me think of a scene from ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights” when he was asked to break some bad news in a funny way. Laughed through the whole scene!

  2. Excellently put. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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