Routine Problems with Bipolar

Last Updated: 14 Feb 2022

I recognize the importance of a consistent routine for managing bipolar. I also know that maintaining my stability depends on having free time for spontaneity.

stress mood anxiety management bipolar disorder schedule routine

The Necessity of Routine

We hear it all the time: Routine is so important for people with bipolar! Keep a steady routine to combat your bipolar symptoms! Do things the same way every day, and life will fall into place!

I get it. Really, I do. Having a routine relieves you of your duty to figure out what you’re supposed to do next. I can see why it is so helpful for people with bipolar (or PWB, for short). It keeps us in our lane of good decisions and authentic behaviors.

But one thing that always seems to be overlooked in talks about establishing a routine is something that we as PWB feel quite often: spontaneity.

The Necessity of Spontaneity

Spontaneity can be wonderful in small, appropriate doses, but those of us with bipolar do tend to be “inspired” with “spontaneity” a lot more often when we’re on the high end of the mood spectrum (hypomania and mania). A series of spontaneous decisions or behaviors—especially if they’re out-of-character—can easily lead us to a place we don’t really want to be: on the slippery slope of “bipolar-bad-decision mode.” This is where spontaneity becomes impulsivity, grandiosity, delusional thinking, and/or other types of destructive energies.

So, again, having a routine is generally a good thing because it limits our shenanigans.

But, I have to say … routine is the bane of my existence.

It’s so boring. Maybe it’s just me (it probably is!), or maybe it’s the current pandemic lifestyle, but I’m in “Groundhog Day mode” almost all the time. Each new day is like a copy of the last. Tomorrow, I won’t remember whether I did a particular “routine thing” today or yesterday. (I know—Woe is me! It’s so mundane! *faints on sofa*)

So instead of following a strict routine 100% of the time, I think PWB may be better off when we let our energy dictate our behavior more often than other people do. It’s like swimming WITH a current instead of against it. Swimming against a current is a great way to drown. Metaphorically, PWB face a MUCH stronger current than “normal people.”

Routine Flexibility—Within Reason

Most people are able to redirect their energy with relative ease when it becomes necessary (for example, giving up after losing all one’s poker chips despite really wanting to win; or getting showered and dressed for work despite really wanting to stay in bed).

PWB can do this, too, of course, but, at certain times, our brain chemistry fluctuates and simply won’t allow “business as usual.” It moves to an extreme state, seeking either way too much life or way too much death, depending on what’s happening with our bipolar.

The hardest part is trusting that it will eventually relent. (It will!) And I think we’re better off if we can go with the flow (literally and figuratively)—and resist the urge to fight against the powerful current of bipolar brain chemistry. Save your energy!

When to Ask for Help

There are limits to the amount of flexibility that is safe to embrace, though. Depending on one’s situation, certain tasks—like feeding the kids, walking the pets, and/or clocking in at work—really must be done at regular intervals in order to keep the wheels on the bus.

When we have trouble managing those things, it’s time to ask for help.

What Flexibility Looks Like for Me

Here are a couple of examples from my own life that illustrate the kind of “routine flexibility” I’m suggesting:

  • Instead of keeping a “regular routine” of dropping off my 3-year-old at preschool at a certain time each day, I go with the flow of both of our moods and take her when our energy is right.
  • I try to ignore deadlines. (Yikes!) OK, let me explain: When I am writing an article or doing a project that has a deadline, my hatred of routine and my antiauthoritarian nature combine to make a “storm” of unwarranted anxiety. To that end, when I commit to a project, I try to begin working on it immediately and keep focusing on it until it’s done. I’ve found that putting off any obligatory work usually gets it caught up in the aforementioned storm.

The moral of this part of the story is that people with bipolar need a more flexible routine because we’re swimming in more perilous waters. Sort of like …

A Boiling Kettle

… And the way we keep this kettle from exploding is by letting off a little steam. And, given the nature of bipolar episodes and/or exploding kettles, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly when it’ll happen.

Now, if you have a steam release valve on the kettle, then you’ll have plenty of warning that the thing is boiling over. First the steam comes out, and then the kettle starts whistling. That whistle gets louder and louder as the kettle heats up, and only ends if

  • (A) you remove it from the heat;
  • (B) the water evaporates; or
  • (C) the thing explodes.

(A) is the correct answer here! When your water is boiling, let off some steam before it’s too late!

How do we “let off some steam”?

Include Routine “Free Time”

I think that means building plenty of flexibility into your routine. Just like “free time” at summer camp, we can create some pockets of time in our schedules to just do whatever the heck feels right. Doing this regularly serves us well, even during times when we’re not particularly stressed or overwhelmed.

Anyone can get stressed or overwhelmed, but, as PWB, we are much more likely than others to experience a toxic, silent “anxiety buildup” that results in problems.

Now, I’m not talking about handing all decision-making over to mania or depression. It’s more about allowing room for decision-making that fits with my energy levels of the moment. Here are a couple of examples from my own life that illustrate the kinds of “steam release” I’m suggesting:

  • I’ve always been a “no-frills,” “work-with-your-hands” type of person, but only recently I have discovered that a pair of well-manicured hands can go a surprisingly long way in terms of boosting my mood. So, I allow myself a trip for a mani-pedi whenever it feels necessary. What was once reserved for special occasions is now my fallback plan for when the kettle starts whistling.
  • If I want to have a fighting chance at operating normally, I really must do a self-check-in at least once per day. During this time (which is taken at my convenience because—have I mentioned?—I hate routines), I turn off all the devices, listen to the birds and squirrels outside my window, and sip coffee. I give my mind freedom and space to wander and explore.

The moral of this part of the story is to make sure you build time for “letting off steam” into your everyday routine—because we definitely don’t want any kettles exploding!

My Routines Require Free Time for Stress Release

It’s much easier for me to embrace the idea of keeping a regular routine if it includes plenty of time for freeform stress release. I know it’s not easy to do that when you have a lot of obligations and/or a job, but I still consider it a priority for wellness with bipolar.

What about you? Have you built any “mandatory free time” into your routine? Could you?

Originally posted February 14, 2022

About the author
Brooke Baron has a BA in English, a minor in philosophy, and a lifelong obsession with language. She is the author of A Beginner's Guide to Being Bipolar. Although born and raised in Alabama, she has been a proud California resident for 10+ years. During a professional stint in Silicon Valley—in both the corporate and private business sectors—she handled internal and external communications, office design and construction, photography and graphic design, executive assistance, and functioning on very little sleep. Brooke now specializes in "New Human Orientation" from her home in the suburbs. She has a young, loving, growing family of five and is fueled by that love and coffee. In addition to caring for the rest of Team Baron, she enjoys writing, reading, researching miscellaneous topics, and funneling manic energy into creative projects. With so many balls in the air—including bipolar II disorder—balancing her life is like balancing two kangaroos on a see-saw. She offers consulting services for the bipolar community at Better Bipolar Balance.
  1. Loved reading this, very helpful.

    Would you have any suggestions for someone struggling to get back/start a routine?

    For the last year or so I’ve been struggling just to get out of bed on time in the mornings. Even if I go to sleep around 9 or 10, I still have trouble getting up at an early enough time to be able to shower and stretch and take care of myself. I know being able to shower, brush my teeth, do my hair, wash my face, and stretch in the mornings would really benefit my overall mental health and give me a boost of energy in the morning for work. But with my job and full-time school, and barely being able to make it out of bed on time that crucial routine seems impossible and I don’t know where to start. And with bipolar, it feels like not only do I not have the time for it, but I don’t have the energy to be able to do that every morning, much less every week.
    If I could achieve that self-care/exercise in the mornings I feel like it would boost my mental health, productivity, etc. . . Therefore giving me some more time in the evenings for that needed spontaneity.

  2. Great article! I struggle with this too. I like to allow flexibility within the routine. If my mood feels a little off due to sleep struggles or other medical issues, I take more breaks in my work day. If my mind feels clear and balanced, I might give more time and energy to work. Any work coming from an unbalanced state would could cause confusion for my co-workers and me, anyway.

    My daily routine requires at least one hour every night to work on music or writing, followed by meditation. Within that time, I’m free to do anything my mind dreams up. Exercising my creativity nicely balances a work day full of logic-based activities, too.

    1. Wow, Neil. You have a great approach—so self-aware. That’s what it takes to manage bipolar.

      Thank you for sharing!


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