When Mental and Physical Health Collide: What To Know About Treating Bipolar When You’re Sick

How getting COVID affected my mental health.
Drawing of a dog in a bed with a thermometer in its mouth and an ice pack on its head.
Graphic created by author with Canva.

Bipolar disorder affects every area of your life, and there are unique challenges to treating bipolar when you’re sick.

When I say every area, I mean every little thing.

No matter what else is happening, bipolar finds a way to get involved. It’s like your annoying uncle who’s determined to be part of every conversation whether you want him there or not. Bipolar wants to add its two cents.

If nothing else, bipolar is going to throw more obstacles in your path.

I started this year with COVID.

The first week wasn’t too bad, but then the second week banged me over the head and threw me down 10 flights of stairs. It’s five weeks since I’ve tested positive, and I still have a painful cough that stops me from walking more than a few steps or speaking a full sentence. It’s making doing my job an obstacle course, especially since I talk to 10-15 clients a day this time of year.

On the positive side, I feel okay other than the chest and back pain from coughing. If it was just that, I think I would be okay, but my bipolar monster is determined to bring his special dance moves to the party.

Here are a few ways a physical illness can trigger bipolar symptoms.

This post is included in the Q1 2023 Best of Speaking Bipolar Digital Magazine. Buy your copy on Etsy.

Medications for physical illnesses can affect your bipolar meds

Probably the most important thing about managing bipolar disorder is to take your medications every day. Ideally, you also want it to be at roughly the same time each day.

If all goes well, those medications can keep your brain chemistry level and help you remain stable.

When you toss other chemicals down your throat, even things as innocuous as antibiotics or cold medicine, your brain chemistry can slide off track. It makes treating bipolar when you’re sick even harder.

For example, I also have Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF). My added companion demands that almost every physical illness requires a dose of steroids to recover. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cold, the flu, or poison ivy. Any additional physical sickness is too much for my body to handle on its own.

The problem is steroids affect my mental health.

For one, I have to stop taking my FMF medication while I’m on the steroid because the two interact. Within a day of missing my med, I can almost guarantee increased pain, a fever, and nausea. After a few days, the pain is so severe I can’t stand it, but the steroid gives me enough energy to keep pushing forward.

Chronic physical pain does something to your mind. I imagine it’s why torture is so effective in getting people to talk. Ongoing pain will drive you to do almost anything to make it stop.

When you have bipolar disorder, the increased pain can lead you mentally down all kinds of dark roads.

Some medications for treating illness also decrease the effectiveness of your mental health medications. That means you might start feeling more manic or more depressed just simply because of the way the medications are interacting with each other.

It can be tough when you have bipolar disorder and also suffer from an illness or injury. But it's important to know that there are ways to treat both conditions. Scott Ninneman shares his story of living with bipolar disorder and how he manages it while also dealing with a chronic illness. His advice is honest, insightful, and will help you learn how to cope when mental and physical health collide.
#mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolar #SpeakingBipolar
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The mental strain of fighting a physical illness is draining

You don’t need me to tell you that being sick is exhausting.

When you spend three or four days in bed with the flu and are so weak you can barely lift your head off the pillow, it affects your mind. That’s true even if you have perfect mental health.

We’re not designed to be stuck in bed for days at a time. When a physical illness forces you to be there, it’s detrimental to your mental health.

When symptoms from a physical illness are long-lasting, it can induce depression and anxiety. Any noise can make you angry.

I’ve had a cough for over a month now, and it’s the type of cough that makes it troublesome to be around other people. Any exertion or conversation and I slip into an ugly coughing fit. I spend half of every tax appointment telling my clients that I’m not sick even though I sound like it.

I’m going to work, because there’s no way to take time off during tax season, but I’m making concessions for my latest symptoms. I’m talking much less than normal and spending more time seated than ever before.

Fighting a new enemy every day is dragging me down, and my bipolar beast treats the exhaustion and frustration as a reason to party. Treating bipolar when you’re sick is overwhelming.

Changes to your routine can increase bipolar symptoms

A vital aspect to treating your bipolar is to stick to  schedules and routines .

For example, you know you should stick to a schedule for taking your medications, going to bed and getting up, and eating regular meals.

These things are simple routines to follow when everything is going well. Add in a physical illness and everything flies to pieces.

Suddenly you’re sleeping at weird times and then awake for three hours in the middle of the night because the cough or pain woke you up. Once alert, your brain often won’t shut off again.

Being sick can suppress your appetite, leading you to eat less food or unhealthy options like junk food. I’ll admit, when I’m at my worst, I don’t care about fruits or vegetables. I eat what’s handy and only if I think it will taste good. During the worst days of my COVID battle, I lived on pretzels, juice, and apple-cinnamon instant oatmeal.

Physical illnesses can cause brain fog

The COVID virus gave me intense brain fog. While the fog held tight in my mind, there were several days I struggled to do anything.

At least two of those days, I forgot to take my medications.

I don’t have an excuse. I have a weekly pill box and always organize my week’s pills ahead of time. Yet, somehow, two days went by without me picking up the box.

The short time of missed medication made everything feel off. I started back to my medication routine as soon as I realized my mistake, but it was several days before I started feeling stable again.

The other issue I’m dealing with is insomnia.

COVID threw my sleep routine out the window. I pass out after dinner and sleep until around midnight, but then I’m up, wide awake, for several hours. Last night, I woke up just before 12 and never went back to sleep.

Sleep is the most essential thing, second only to medication, to keep my brain in the right place. The insomnia is making everything else worse, but still I fight on.

Drawing of a woman wrapped in a blanket and holding her head because she's not feeling well.
Graphic created by author with Canva.

Managing bipolar when you have a physical illness

The good news is there are a few ways to help get things back on track.

Here are a few ways to succeed at treating bipolar when you’re sick.

  • Follow your routine as much as possible. It’s a tougher challenge when you’re not feeling well. Sticking to your routines will help you hold on to sanity. Continue to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Try to eat something during your regular mealtimes and remember to take your medications every day.
  • Give yourself time to rest. The fastest way to get over any illness is to drink plenty of fluids and take time to rest. I’m resting as much as I can, and it’s helping me cope with not getting enough sleep during the night.
  • Be patient with yourself. Most of us with bipolar disorder live with the false belief that we have to be perfect. We harp on every mistake we make, and put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. Fight that urge, and try to be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to take time to get better, and don’t expect more of yourself than you can do. If you push yourself too much, it will take that much longer to get over your physical illness. The longer the physical malady, the longer the negative impact on your mental health.

Bipolar disorder is like the naughty toddler drawing with markers on the wall. It colors every aspect of your life. While it’s frustrating, you can face each challenge and come off victorious.

Accept the challenges as they come and then do what you can to keep fighting. In time, the physical illness will pass. Then, you’ll only have bipolar to deal with again.

Until next time, keep fighting.

It can be tough when you have bipolar disorder and also suffer from an illness or injury. But it's important to know that there are ways to treat both conditions. Scott Ninneman shares his story of living with bipolar disorder and how he manages it while also dealing with a chronic illness. His advice is honest, insightful, and will help you learn how to cope when mental and physical health collide.
#mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolar #SpeakingBipolar
Please share on Pinterest. Graphic created with Canva.

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