Taking medication is critical when you have a serious mental illness like bipolar disorder, but getting the best bipolar treatment goes well beyond the prescription pad. Certain lifestyle factors can help medication work better by actually changing the way the brain works, says Chris Aiken, MD, an instructor in clinical psychiatry at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Treatment Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Take charge of your care and make these changes to put the odds of recovery in your favor.
1. Stay on Schedule. For the best bipolar care, engage in daily rituals at the same time each day or within a half-hour window, Dr. Aiken advises. This can regulate neurohormones and cut your risk for mood swings in half, he says. The four activities most critical to your body clock are: when you get out of bed, the time you start work or chores, when you begin interacting with others, and when you eat dinner.
2. Get Regular ZZZ’s. Getting enough sleep is very important for bipolar treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Aiken says to focus on the regularity of sleep as well as the quantity you get. Research shows that waking at regular times and staying out of bed during the day are much more important than trying to fall asleep at regular times. “This means it’s better to go to bed when tired than to try to force yourself to sleep,” he says, “and you shouldn’t try to catch up on missed sleep by napping during the day.”
3. Consider Talk Therapy. Adding psychotherapy to your bipolar treatment can help. “I would never advise taking medication without also engaging in long-term psychotherapy,” says Stephanie Schroeder, a 51-year-old writer in Brooklyn, New York, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 37 after two suicide attempts. Medication clears the path for talk therapy to help uncover and then change negative thought patterns and unproductive behaviors (like repeatedly making the same bad choices) associated with bipolar, she explains.
4. Chart Your Progress. One of the best ways to get the best bipolar care is to track your symptoms on a mood chart, Aiken says. Psychiatrists appreciate the information, and patients can keep their own copy with a record of their bipolar treatment medication changes and mood history.
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“I often show patients a graph of their progress,” he says. “This helps them see just how far they’ve come and which steps, whether it be medication or lifestyle changes, helped them get there. However, sometimes I have to show those graphs to help patients realize things are going downhill and we need a change of plan.”
5. Document Your Wishes. “Another helpful idea for folks with bipolar is to make an advance directive,” Schroeder says. “This helps let people you care about and who care about you know what you are willing to do and not do if you are hospitalized against your will — things such as having your own doctor continue to treat you or declining to take medication other than your own.”
6. Build a Social Network. Go beyond the Internet. A real-life circle of supportive friends and family can help medications work better, Aiken says. “I find, and I know others do as well, that going out with friends for coffee, dinner (not alcoholic beverages though), and socializing generally elevates their mood or at least keeps them from isolating and spiraling downward,” Schroeder says.
“I know, too, that folks who’ve been in or are currently in psychotherapy know the advantage of socializing and also know to make themselves do it even when they don’t feel like doing so.”
7. Get Moving. Add exercise to your daily routine to give yourself the best bipolar care. “Regular aerobic exercise treats depression and helps protect brain cells in the mood center,” Aiken says. “Walking briskly for 30 minutes a day is enough to get this effect.”
Choose an activity that you enjoy so you’re more likely to stick with it. Aiken says that making just one of the changes mentioned might not make much difference, so try several at once. And be patient. Much like tending a garden, the benefits of these bipolar treatment approaches build up gradually over three to six weeks, he adds.