Category Archives: sleep

Stress Intolerance

A few months ago I saw an ad in the local hospital for a bipolar support group.  It said “having bipolar is like being allergic to stress”.  That’s about the most accurate description I’ve seen, I think.

I haven’t posted much on here in the last few months because I have been finishing up my doctoral thesis, then I took a holiday (my first in 5 years) and now I’m working on job applications.  It has been, in every sense, an exceptionally stressful few months.

It is perhaps curious, then, that it is only in the last week, a month and a half after I submitted my thesis, a month since I got back from a lovely holiday, and a week after I got a job application in, that the crushing anxiety, panic and low mood has really set in.

Whilst bipolar is an ‘allergy’ to stress, the reaction is often delayed and it can be hard to deal with that.  Immediately after submitting my thesis I braced myself for a downswing, cleared my diary and prepared to meltdown.  But it didn’t come. ‘Perhaps it’s not going to!’ I thought. ‘I’ll just get on with preparing for my holiday!’.  In the first couple of days of my holiday, whilst I was in Zagreb, I began to feel the black edging into the edges of my thinking – ‘ah! here it is! Best take myself off somewhere quiet to mope’.  But again, it never really came through – I travelled south in Croatia to Split and the sun was out and my troubles seemed to lift. ‘Maybe I really am cured!’ I thought.  ‘Perhaps the secret cure for cyclothymia is writing 80,000 words followed by sunshine!’

There was a nagging sense, deep inside me, that all that was happening was that the holiday was delaying the inevitable.  That low, that allergic reaction, was just waiting for me, biding it’s time.

Buoyed along by a busy schedule and post-holiday glow (literal and metaphorical, managed to get a lovely tan in 7 days in the sun), the week following my holiday was pretty solid.  But, little by little, I began to slow down. Waking later, sleeping longer, heating up meals from the freezer instead of creating culinary masterpieces from scratch.  It was coming.  Having terrible dreams, waking up sweating and gasping for breath.  The first signs of the inevitable reaction – the mental health equivalent of itchy skin, fuzzy tongue, sneezing.

And so, we come to today. Woke up, after another night of terrible dreams. barely able to walk in a straight line (anyone else experience low swing as significant impairment in physical-coordination?) Ate breakfast.  Fell asleep again for 2 hours.  Stumbled about for a few hours, tried to boost mood with music, ended up crying to Vivaldi, of all things.  Tried to work – read the same sentence of an article 4 times in a row before giving up.  Tried to sew – took me three times as long as normal to do a small section, abandoned. Considered visiting family, decided it wasn’t worth risk of an argument. Digestive system, which has been merrily melting down in response to stress since May, reaching it’s peak in pain.

Do I feel stressed? No. Do I have any urgent jobs, bills, or commitments? No. The peak stress is gone.  There are, of course, still various tasks and events on the horizon which will be challenging and likely stressful, but nothing in the immediate future. This is cyclothymia.  This is what stress does.  It goes in, gets absorbed, and then, when there’s nothing pressing, when there is time, it’s released throughout your mind and body, disrupting all the vital systems, leaving you on your knees amidst apparent calm.

I’m falling to pieces in a house well stocked with food, bills paid, jobs done.  I’m struggling to sleep in a large bed when I don’t have an alarm set for the morning and I couldn’t tell you the name of the thing that is worrying me half to death.

For people with bipolar spectrum conditions, stress is so like an allergen.  It’s a constant presence in life, ebbing and flowing with the season and the location. And it is almost impossible to protect yourself from – it sneaks into your world, leaking through the cracks in whatever plans you make or precautions you take.

Right now, it feels like the UK is in meltdown.  As the government and new Prime Minister push ahead on the disastrous Brexit plan, the main opposition party is in disarray and entirely incapable of coordinating a strenuous response to the inevitable public funding cuts, Brexit, and the terrifying rise in hate crime and hate speech.  This is stressful.  And, along with the undefined worries which already plague me, I can feel my mind absorbing it all, quietly storing it away, ready to top up my anxiety at any moment.

Sometimes it feels like cyclothymia disqualifies you from living in the world at all.

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Sleep

I am obsessed with sleep.

How much did I get last night? What’s my average this week? This month? How many times did I wake up last night? What arrangement of pillows gives me the best sleep? Did I sleep too much? Do I have a real headache or have I slept too much/too little? I could go on and on.

Sleep – too much or too little – both reflects my current mental state, and dictates it.  When I’m on a fairly steady keel I find I sleep a solid 8 hours, usually waking once, invariably waking groggy (I’ve never been a morning person) but rested.  Running into, and during, a depressive period I sleep terribly but frequently – upwards of 10 hours at night and often napping during the day – and walk around in a fog of exhaustion and anxiety.  During manic periods I sleep little, sometimes as few as 3 or 4 hours a night

I have a sleep tracker on my phone and have been coveting a fit-bit ever since I learnt they too track your sleep. Right now my sleep tracker tells a sad story – more than a week of sleep below my ‘ideal’ 8.5 hour line punctuated by 1 night of 11 hour sleep followed by an especially miserable 5.5 hours.  The mood cost of this? Anxiety, exhaustion, slow thinking, poor attention span and a niggling feeling the world is about to fall down.  Am I sleeping badly because I’m in a low or am I in a low because I’m sleeping badly?

There is quite a bit out there in internet-land about the importance of good sleep patterns if you have bipolar [spectrum] disorder.  A few online sources suggest that lack of quality sleep can trigger a manic period.  I’m not sure my own experience corroborates that and one might also question presumption of cause and effect implied in that conclusion (i.e. does sleep deprivation trigger a [hypo]manic episode or is the first sign of a hypomanic episode reduced need for sleep?). As I say above, I find lack of sleep corresponds with the beginning of a depressive period (although again, is it lack of sleep, or is it that I don’t sleep much because I’m hypomanic and then I, inevitably, have a depressive period?).

What I have found, conclusively, is that maintaining a reasonable sleep pattern and getting enough sleep (8 hours) each night is the best method I have available to maintain a stable mood.  I usually make it to about 3 weeks feeling ‘normal’ if work/life stress is average and I get a regular, uninterrupted, 8 hours.  It’s not much, it’s the time I live for though. The time I think least about whether I am happy or sad and, therefore, the time I am happiest.

Right now, I’m under quite a bit of pressure at work and over the last month have spent more time sleeping on friend’s floors, hostel beds, hotel room beds and buses than I have in my own bed.  It’s getting to the point where I’m fantasising about a week where I don’t have to set an alarm for any time before 11am (because, my brain is still out to get me and if I don’t set any alarm at all I sleep for 12 hours) and wondering if I’m setting any new records in surviving sleep deprivation without actually being technically sleep deprived (7 hours sleep on average the last 2 weeks)

Identifying how important decent sleep is to my mood is more than half the battle, I’m sure of that.  What is harder to deal with is what my obsession with sleep means for social and romantic life.

Ever fallen into bed with a new lover, then checked the clock as you finish and realise you needed to be asleep an hour ago? Then immediately ruled out anything else by turning over and concentrating on going to sleep? Ever left parties early, not because you had an exceptionally early morning or important shit to do the next day, but because you didn’t want to ruin the rest of your week with one disrupted night’s sleep? Ever refused a friend a place to stay because one night with someone else in the room means sleeplessness, and sleeplessness means a lost week?…And on and on it goes.

I love sleep.  I really do.  I love getting into bed, burrowing down, hitting ‘sleep’ on my phone.  I love waking up but not needing to go anywhere and just lazing in the in-between-haze of asleep and awake.  I just don’t love needing that more than almost anything else in my day if I want to be functional, coherent, and, most of all, sane.  I’d love just the odd late night without consequences.  Just a few sneaky early mornings without feeling like I have bugs crawling under my skin or that my brain is going to vibrate out of my skull.  And I do wish I wasn’t so obsessed by everything to do with sleep, because I think it’s a dead giveaway that I’m nuts when I meet someone new and my entire life is quickly revealed to be dedicated to a Good Night’s Sleep. It’s surprisingly hard to make an obsession with sleep – something we all, quite clearly, do – seem normal.

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Filed under sleep, symptoms and habits