Your body’s circadian rhythms are like a big clock governing how you eat, sleep, and generally function throughout the day. This internal system also makes you you (to an extent), and plays a role in keeping your hormones and mood from going haywire unexpectedly. So when this “clock” is thrown off—which can happen a lot for people with bipolar I—moving through the day can feel a lot harder. Research shows that irregular circadian rhythms—which can be caused by a crappy night’s sleep, eating in the wee hours of the morning, or other tweaks to your normal routine—can lead to extreme depressive and manic episodes.1
Though medication and therapy are the best tools to help you prevent and manage mood swings, structuring your day to protect your circadian rhythms can also help, says Christopher Schneck, MD, medical director of the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Having a predictable routine—say, establishing a set time for sleep or doing some stretches right when you get out of bed—can act as “environmental mood stabilizers,” he tells SELF. That works for pretty much anything that helps your body sense and adapt to a consistent schedule.2
When you’re up to it, here are three habits to structure into your day.
1. Do your best to wake up and go to bed around the same hours each day.
Pick a set time to wake up—ideally, one that allows you to cushion in a period to get out of bed gradually, have breakfast, and get your mind ready for the day, Dr. Scheck says. The same goes for choosing a sleep time, Ryan Sultán, MD, the director of the Integrative Psych and Mental Health Informatics Lab at Columbia University in New York City, tells SELF. When possible, he recommends hitting the sheets around the same time each night so you can account for at least six and a half hours of sleep—though if it’s closer to eight or nine, even better.3 Medications and therapy aside, sleep is the principal mood stabilizer when you have bipolar I, Dr. Scheck says—a lack of it ups your chance of mood swings.
As you might know already, quality rest isn’t the easiest to come by if you’re feeling symptoms of depression or mania—but a calming nighttime routine, especially one that includes meditation or reading instead of phone-scrolling, can help, Dr. Sultán says. Sleeping in a pitch-black room can also be beneficial.
Give yourself some grace (and a margin for error) as you get adjusted to a sleep schedule, Dr. Schneck adds—it can be difficult at first, especially if you’re trying a new medication or have a lot going on. If racing thoughts are keeping you up at night, he recommends scheduling a nap or quiet time the next day to help you feel more rested (and potentially calmer and more in control).
2. On the days you can exercise, try to do it at a specific time.
The more regularly you move your body when you have bipolar I, the fewer depressive and manic episodes you might have, Dr. Sultán says. He recommends doing a physical activity you enjoy—whether that be walking, dancing, yoga, or even gardening—for about 30 minutes on most days of the week. (Still, he says, being realistic is important: If a half hour feels like too much, go smaller—say, by moving in 10- or 15-minute increments—to avoid burning out or skipping it altogether.)