Keep Your Lows From Keeping You Down

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on July 21, 2016
3 min read

When she was 19, Laura Riordan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition characterized by extreme mood swings -- periods of highs (called mania) and lows of depression.

"During periods of depression, I've had really dark days where I didn't want to be alive," Riordan says. "I'd sleep 18 to 20 hours some days. I really didn't function for months. I'd be holed up in bed, not showering for 3 or 4 days and not even able to make my own food."

"For anyone living with the condition, they tend to spend a lot more time in the downs than the ups," explains Eric A. Youngstrom, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience, and of psychiatry, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But "recovery is possible with bipolar disorder," he says.

Partner with a mental health expert.
Because bipolar depression can resemble other conditions, see your doctor or mental health professional to get a correct diagnosis.

"Even though the depression looks similar [to regular depression], it doesn't respond the same to treatments," says Youngstrom, acting director of UNC's Center for Excellence in Research and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder. Talk to an expert about medication or types of therapy that may be right for you.

Get moving.
"Exercise helps," Youngstrom says. In addition to releasing endorphins (feel-good chemicals in the body), exercise helps reduce inflammation.

"We're starting to suspect that inflammatory processes -- chemical changes that trigger swelling of blood vessels throughout the body, including the brain -- are a core feature of bipolar disorder," Youngstrom says.

Exercising and eating heart-healthy meals, which are good for reducing inflammation in general, may ease symptoms of bipolar depression, he says. But avoid drugs and alcohol. Both can worsen the disease and make treatment more difficult.

Get regular sleep.
"Sleep is crucial," as many people with bipolar disorder "have a very sensitive, very delicate internal clock that's easy to knock out of tune," Youngstrom explains.

Practice good sleep habits, such as going to bed and waking up at the same time. "Get the electronics out of the bedroom, and get off your e-reader or cellphone at least 90 minutes before bed," Youngstrom says.

Consider a supplement.
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids help reduce symptoms of bipolar depression. While they're not a cure, Youngstrom says, "they're likely to be helpful in prevention or extending the amount of time that you stay well between flare-ups."

As for Riordan, now 35, she's doing well with medication and lifestyle changes. Going to a weekly support group has been crucial, she says. "Exercise is a huge help, even just getting out for a walk and getting some sunshine."

And she has found it helpful to write notes to herself about what works. "It may sound silly," she says. "But when you're feeling depressed, you can't really remember anything that works."

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