Bipolar Abroad

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College life presents many challenges, but for those students dealing with mental illness, it can seem like an insurmountable task at times. I speak from experience, as I cope daily with bipolar II, which is a manic-depressive mood disorder. Managing bipolar disorder while studying abroad can seem even more insurmountable, but with the right preparation and coping skills, it can be a rewarding experience.

bipolar abroadKnow Thyself

To ensure I lead a balanced life, I must remain vigilant to the things that could trigger an episode, which includes the food I eat, when and how I exercise, how much sleep I get, and monitoring my daily mental breaks. Most of this sounds like common sense self-care, but if any one of these things gets unbalanced it could create a space for my mania to thrive, which can then trigger an entire cycle of depressive and manic episodes. This is why it is extremely important for me to stay on a regular daily routine. I must get at least nine hours of sleep a night, I can only workout in the mornings, I cannot imbibe any caffeine and only minimal amounts of alcohol, and I have to meditate for at least 10 minutes each day. Sticking to this schedule is the only thing that keeps me balanced and in tune with my emotions. In choosing to study abroad, I knew that my routine would be altered and I would be challenged to maintain an emotional equilibrium while living in New Zealand. Managing my moods while abroad meant preparing myself before I ever left home. I sought counseling from my home institution and started keeping a journal to record my feelings about the upcoming trip. I am also lucky enough to have a strong support network of family and friends at home, so being open and honest with them about my feelings was a large priority as well. These simple tasks gave me a solid foundation on which to build my new routine once I arrived in Dunedin.

Set a Routine

As soon as I got settled in at the University of Otago, I quickly got to work creating a new daily schedule to ensure my emotional stability remained intact. I input my entire four month itinerary into my calendar, from classes to IFSA outings, right down to the trips I wanted to take while in New Zealand. I set up a routine similar to the one I had at home, with minor adjustments to help accommodate my new surroundings. For example, due to my proximity to the campus recreation center, I decided to work out at home and adjusted my sleep schedule so as not to wake my flatmates each morning.

One of the biggest difficulties I faced while abroad was maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, as I lived right beside Castle Street, which is dubbed the “party” street for a reason. Large, loud house parties were the norm, and I had many opportunities to drink and stay out late with friends, which meant having an irregular sleep schedule. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is probably my largest trigger for inducing a manic episode. I had to work really hard to counteract the negative mood swings that arose from long nights with too much beer. I found that meditating for longer periods of time after prolonged nights of partying helped to quell the rising mania just enough for me to get back to a regular sleep pattern.

Find Your Balance

I have been quite fortunate in the fact that I’ve been able to maintain a pretty balanced existence while living in Dunedin. Much of my success can be attributed to my understanding of what my strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to handling my bipolar disorder. With the help of therapy and medication, I’ve been able to confidently work toward a greater understanding of how and why my moods change. I know that sleep affects me more than my diet, so I’ve paid more attention to the amount of sleep I get versus how much beer I consume in any given week. I also understand that the best way to counteract negative effects of an irregular schedule is to recenter myself through extended meditation sessions.

I knew coming on this adventure would be quite taxing on my emotional state, but you can’t grow if you’re unwilling to challenge yourself, and that’s part of why I chose to study abroad in the first place. Being prepared is the first step in assuring you can confidently navigate a new environment successfully. As always though, I made sure to have a backup plan while in New Zealand, which was knowing where to go for help if I needed it. IFSA provided support through on site staff and the University of Otago had a mental health services facility, plus monthly group coaching sessions to help people navigate issues like anxiety, homesickness, and depression. I felt safer knowing that, while abroad, I had a safety net in place should I have ever fallen. My experience is only one of many, and it will be different for everyone depending on one’s particular mental illness and where one chooses to study. Being prepared by knowing where to get help while abroad, creating a basic routine to stick to, and knowing your strengths and weaknesses can make all the difference in creating an amazing experience.

Sarah Adkins is a cultural anthropology major at Oregon State University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Otago in New Zealand in fall 2018. She served as an IFSA First-Generation College Student Scholar. You can read more about her studies abroad on her blog at nzstudyabroad.com.

Article by Sarah Adkins