When “Helpful” Advice Doesn’t Help Bipolar Depression

Last Updated: 21 Jan 2022
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If I could “snap out of it,” I would. Here’s why advice like that isn’t helpful—plus 5 strategies that do help me cope with bipolar depression.

Unhelpful Advice for Bipolar Depression

Have you ever gotten this advice when experiencing bipolar depression?

  • “Think positive.”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Snap out of it.”

I’ve heard it all, and more. But when I’m in the throes of a deep depression, none of this “helpful” advice really helps. It makes me feel like my pain is being dismissed or minimized.

Bipolar depression is huge, heavy, and suffocating. Telling me to essentially “get over it” feels invalidating and sometimes downright insulting. Thinking instead about how much worse it could be doesn’t help, because those thoughts keep me in a feedback loop of negativity.

This “advice” sounds more like bumper-sticker slogans, and it doesn’t address the severity of bipolar depression, which is a serious sickness. It can be debilitating—both physically and mentally.

So, how do I handle this kind of guidance? And what works for me?

#1 Understand Intentions

It’s hard not to feel hurt when I’m on the receiving end of so-called helpful suggestions. I feel belittled. Even when I want to scream, “Don’t you think I’d be doing these things if I could?” I’m grateful someone cares enough to assist in the only way they know how.

Advice, by nature, originates from a caring, compassionate place. It’s meant as encouragement and support. It’s (usually) said with the best of intentions.

Maybe the person offering recommendations doesn’t understand mental illness.

Maybe they’ve never experienced depression.

Even if someone says, “snap out of it,” they could just be taking a tough-love approach.

I’ve found that asking people to listen to my problems—rather than trying to “solve” them—helps the most. I just need to feel seen and heard.

#2 Reevaluate Treatment Plans

If I’m struggling, it could be time for a medication adjustment. Just because one treatment worked for me last month doesn’t mean it’s still effective.

Bipolar disorder certainly isn’t impossible to treat, but it can be a moving target. It takes vigilance to stay in recovery. Friends, family, and advice can only do so much when it comes to depression.

Even if my medicines are working as expected, I may need a psychotherapist. If I’m already seeing one, it might be time to schedule more frequent visits.

If I’m feeling helpless or hopeless, I seek out free support options available through places like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, which has chapters all over the country, and the International Bipolar Foundation, which offers worldwide resources. If I’m experiencing dark and dangerous thoughts, I don’t hesitate to reach out to the Lifeline.

#3 Focus on the Physical

Advice like “stop catastrophizing” is simplistic, and much easier said than done.

Bipolar depression temporarily hijacks the brain. I get lost in my negative thoughts, and it can feel impossible to escape. I can’t just “wake up” from my depression simply by thinking good thoughts. Instead, I focus on the physical, which feels more manageable.

I ask a trusted friend, neighbor, or loved one with help literally getting moving by walking around the block together. If I’m alone, I do a few jumping jacks. If I don’t have the energy to get off the sofa, I can simply shake out my arms and legs periodically.

Even if I’m exhausted, any physical activity jump-starts blood flow. It wakes my body up, and that helps my brain function more effectively so I can get better.

#4 Find a Healthy Distraction

Have you ever heard the phrase “Get out of your bed and out of your head”? My depression is like a maze in my brain that I can’t find the end of, but constructive distraction is doable.

I’ve learned through experience not to rely on unhealthy coping skills like promiscuity, shopping, drinking, or using drugs. Instead, I look at cute animal videos online, or I watch an engaging documentary movie or TV show on history or archeology. One of my favorites is the British TV series Time Team. I recently saw an episode in which a military veteran recovered from PTSD by watching their team of archeologists “dig a hole and see what was in it.”

Stand-up comedy has also done wonders for me when I’m depressed. Laughter truly can be the best medicine. Healthy distractions quiet my spiraling negative ruminations by taking my mind off my mind, and that helps me feel normal again.

#5 Don’t Believe Everything You Think

When I’m depressed, my brain lies to me. It says life is all doom and gloom, that I’m worthless, and that things will never get better. But I’ve learned something very important: not to believe everything I think.

Just because I think something is true, doesn’t mean it is.

If I think I’m worthless, that’s depression talking. If I think things are hopeless, it’s only because my illness has convinced me that every day will be the same as the one that came before it. If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that everything is temporary.

Because I’ve made it through the ups and downs of depression, mania, and recovery, I know things will eventually improve, it’s just a matter of time.

Recovery & Resilience

The next time I experience bipolar depression and I get “helpful” advice that’s anything but, I plan to enlist some of these tools. They’ve worked for me in the past, and I hope they’re effective for you as well.

Recovery isn’t about being healthy 100% of the time, it’s about learning resilience. You’ve navigated this far through the new normal, so you can and will emerge from bipolar depression.


Originally posted January 3, 2022

About the author
Carrie Cantwell is a graphic artist and writer with bipolar disorder. She’s the author of Daddy Issues: A Memoir, about growing up with a volatile father who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide, and how accepting her own diagnosis taught her to forgive him. Carrie began her career as a feature writer for an online publication. She then worked as a film and television graphic designer for 16 years. In 2021, she retired from the entertainment industry to focus on mental health advocacy and suicide prevention. Carrie writes for bpHope Blog, bp Magazine, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), Medical News Today, the Stigma-Free Society, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), and WebMD. Her website is DarknessAndLight.org.
15 Comments
  1. Thank you for this article. I just went through a major episode of bipolar depression about a week and a half ago. I was getting so bad that I had to reach out due to having suicidal thoughts. These 5 suggestions are really great advice. I was doing some of them on my own already but didn’t realize it and that is what kept me from going completely in the dark. It is amazing how the support from loving and caring people can help. I have been trying to inform and educate my 2 closest support people, so they know what I go through and are able to be there for me when I really need them. It is an ongoing battle dealing with bipolar disorder. I really appreciate articles like this and people who are willing to share their personal experiences to help others who are struggling with the same battle.

  2. Before I really understood depression, I used to send my daughter messages like “Go for a walk, get some sun on your skin, plan a dinner with a friend……” Although I believe these actions can help, it definitely didn’t help her deal with severe depressions. I now ask her to tell me what level of depression she is feeling and we look into tweaking meds, increasing therapies, etc. and not assuming it will go away with a good, brisk walk.

  3. Thank you, everything you said is so true.

  4. Exactly! Thank you!

  5. Excellent article, Carrie! I really appreciate it. It resonated with me.

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