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Self-Soothing During Difficult Times

This post originally featured on PsychCentral.

The ups and downs of bipolar disorder provide ripe ingredients for a crisis. During mania we may feel phenomenal and deny that a serious situation is occurring, but our behavior speaks differently. In depression or anxiety, we may feel a crisis acutely. It may come in the form of hopelessness, a panic attack suicidal ideation or even an attempt. During these times it’s important to have at hand a list of coping mechanisms that help ease the crisis to make it easier to manage. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms they utilize during a crisis whether they are beneficial or detrimental. It’s important to learn constructive ways to self-soothe during an emotional or behavioral crisis.

There are numerous ways people self-soothe during difficult times. The hard part is knowing whether or not the behavior we choose to cope with a crisis is constructive or destructive. Some self-soothing or coping techniques are obviously harmful for us, but still provide momentary distraction or relief from negative feelings. This often leads to addiction in some form. There are a few of these that people with bipolar disorder tend to turn to more often:

  • Drugs and alcohol– more than half of people with bipolar disorder experience substance use disorder. That rate is seven times higher than the national average.
  • Food– Obesity and binge eating disorder are also more common in people with bipolar disorder. Like drugs and alcohol, food can provide momentary feelings of pleasure, but afterward tend to lead to feelings of guilt, thus producing a cycle.
  • Smoking– People with bipolar disorder are 2-3 times more likely to smoke than their healthy counterparts.
  • Shopping– Spending sprees are classic examples of risky behavior present in bipolar disorder. Retail therapy can range from small unnecessary items to large purchases like cars, boats or property.

All of these may feel good at the time, but addiction to anything is generally harmful and will prove detrimental in both the long-term and the short term. It’s important to recognize our own negative coping skills to be on the lookout for them when cravings hit.

So, what is the solution when difficult times or a crises occur and we crave comfort? Firstly, it’s important that we not try to ignore negative feelings completely. It’s okay to be vulnerable. However, there are several techniques that can help calm us and relieve stress when necessary. This is called self-soothing.

  • Mindfulness Meditation– is all about being in the moment. Sit down, close your eyes and assess the situation. How does your body feel? How does your mind feel? Express these answers in a way that does not judge, as if the feelings and reactions are neither good nor bad. When you can objectively assess a situation, it is easier to de-escalate it and move on.
  • 5-4-3-2-1 Method– This is a method generally taught to help with borderline personality disorder in a type of therapy called Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). In the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise you note five objects you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell and one you can taste. Becoming objectively aware of your surroundings can take you safely out of your head and provide calming benefits.
  • Exercise– Some studies have shown that exercise can relieve stress and anxiety in a positive way. It also releases excess energy. Exercise can include sports, yoga, aerobics, calisthenics, weight lifting and numerous other exercises. However, be careful when manic or hypomanic as these moods can lead to overexertion.
  • Do something small– Calming does not have to include drastic changes in your surroundings. Something as simple as petting an animal or making a cup of tea can be relaxing. Watch tv, read a book or browse the internet. These are all healthy distractions that can easily take us out of an anxiety-inducing situation.

These are all methods to use during minor crises and difficult times. If you are experiencing a severe crisis and may be a danger to yourself and others, please seek professional help. You can do this by: