How My Lifestyle Affects My Bipolar Disorder

When I was in high school, a health teacher told me that someday the foods I was eating would “catch up with” me. (Back then, I existed on a steady diet of soda pop, french fries, and pizza.) Being young -- and not feeling any immediate negative effects from my food choices -- I ignored him.

At the time, I didn’t understand that all of our choices are connected. Heck, I barely saw the connection between eating and weight gain back then, let alone how my choices on sleeping, eating, and exercise impacted my overall life.

In the years since then, I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) just how much power my lifestyle choices have over my overall well-being -- and, specifically, my bipolar disorder.

I’ve written before that managing bipolar disorder isn’t just about following medical instructions. Medication and therapy are extremely important, but they aren’t the entire solution. Our lifestyles play a huge role, so our choices must be conducive to success.

For me, that means living what I call the diagnosed bipolar lifestyle. That includes sleep hygiene, stress management, and eating healthy. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I try to eat healthy.)

As much as I enjoy watching television late into the night while eating potato chips, there is a cost to that decision. The next day at work, I’ll be moody and lack focus. I won’t accomplish all my tasks, which will cause me to feel overwhelmed.  

On top of all that, I’ll feel worn out. Many of the symptoms of exhaustion mirror the symptoms of depression, so it becomes a very slippery slope.

And when I don’t feel good physically, I don’t make the best decisions, which makes it hard to respond to all of this additional stress in a healthy way.

At the end of the day, something as seemingly insignificant as getting less sleep can bring consequences that have long-term effects on my life. 

When it comes to healthy eating, well, that’s a work in progress for me. I’m an American -- junk food is plentiful, and I like eating it. The consequences of that choice is twofold. First, the expected health consequences -- from weight gain to increased risk for diabetes and heart disease and lots of other stuff I don’t want to experience.

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And there are immediate effects, too. Like most everyone else, when I eat garbage, I feel like garbage. Feeling lethargic, heavy, and physically drained leads to the same consequences as lack of sleep -- all of which can threaten my recovery with bipolar disorder.

When it comes to stress management, one thing that helps me a lot is choosing jobs and activities where I can be my best self. For example, I learned a long time ago that while I may be great at troubleshooting problems with my own computer, being a professional computer technician isn’t for me. When a network goes offline, the pressure to bring it back up is intense. That isn’t something that I can personally handle.

And that’s OK.

A large part of my therapy was learning what kinds of careers I would excel at and what situations make me feel most comfortable. Once I figured all this out, it was just a matter of finding those situations and enjoying my life.

So often in the treatment of bipolar disorder, we focus on all the things we are unable to do. Part of the reason I’ve been so successful in my recovery is that I have focused on the things I can do and ignore the things I can’t.

Mental health and physical health shouldn’t be separated. When I’m physically healthy, I feel better. When I’m mentally healthy, I feel better. If I pay attention to all the things that make me feel good, I’ll not only live better, but longer as well.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 18, 2018
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