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Managing stress after being diagnosed with a mental illness

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Madeleine shares her thoughts and experiences of dealing with stress at university in the context of being diagnosed with bipolar.

– Madeleine Chamberlain


The theme for this month is stress, something I’m sure every student has had an experience with. Stress is something that is unavoidable in life, but it can be managed with the right tools and approaches. As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, stress can be a huge precursor to having an episode. Stress can be a scary word in my mind, something which has haunted and frightened me, especially when I have had a recent episode. Stress can build and bubble up in a variety of ways and often I don’t realise I’m stressed until I reach a tipping point.
I think the key for me is taking away the fuel of fear from the equation. Once I remove the fuel, the slow but significant burn of stress can be kept to a manageable level. Fear is understandable when you have experienced an extremely scary episode, it’s like the fear of having a flare-up of a physical illness. You know it can happen because it’s happened before. But the important thing is to ensure this fear of stress taking over doesn’t stop you from living your life the way you want to. Just like physical illnesses, sometimes you have to make adjustments, but that in no way means you can’t follow your dreams and aspirations.
I experienced an episode of mania when completing my dissertation in my final year of university, which made it very difficult to complete my studies. Mania is different for everyone with bipolar, but for me, it involved delusions, paranoia, and psychosis. This was no doubt a very stressful period, with a global pandemic just announced, university deadlines rearing their ugly heads and stressful situations in my personal life. I found that there wasn’t one easy fix to all the stress that was building up, as I was too engulfed in an episode of mania to really get out of it alone. That’s why the key to avoiding this kind of situation for me, as well as many other people, is getting early help. This proved difficult in the pandemic, with long waiting lists and the problem of having to go home from university away from my registered GP. Noticing early warning signs is so helpful. It can avoid a complete stress bubble over, helping me take care of myself as well as signposting those around me to how they can help too.
As someone who has experienced extreme stress and who felt completely lost in an episode of bipolar during their final year of university, I want to highlight to anyone struggling that there is always a way out. A combination of talking to my university to extend my studies, medication and support from my family and friends meant that I could recover in my own time. I could then return to my studies refreshed and ready to take on any challenges that came my way. Often my fears of having stress take over can obstruct my ability to lean into happiness, but I have learnt that not everything is a symptom. It is possible to live with a mental illness, manage stress and experience emotions freely. Knowing I have bipolar just gives me more information on how I can look after myself better, and it does not make me any less capable or worthy. It simply makes me more self-aware and able to cope better with stress having had to learn strategies that work for me and my mental illness. 
Find out more about bipolar disorder and how to support someone.

I’m Madeleine, a recent graduate from the University of York. Having been diagnosed with bipolar, I’m passionate about keeping the conversation about mental health going in order to lessen the stigma of mental illness. I believe that everyone should be made to feel comfortable to share their story if they want to, allowing the potential for others to feel inspired and comforted that they are not alone. In my free time, I enjoy playing the guitar, writing poems and praying that I’ll get a ticket to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour.

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