Bipolar Disorder and Messiness: Are They Connected?

Changes in tidiness, personal hygiene, and how you organize your spaces may be a sign of a mood episode in bipolar disorder, but not always.

Mood episodes in bipolar disorder may affect how you behave and the motivation you have to complete certain tasks.

During an episode of depression, for example, you may find that dishes pile up, mail goes unopened, or clutter accumulates on your tables or floor space.

During an episode of mania, you could find yourself purchasing a lot of new items and not putting them away once you get home.

These are just two examples that may represent how bipolar disorder can sometimes lead to “messiness” or disorganization.

But bipolar disorder symptoms can be managed and treatment is often effective. If you find yourself having a difficult time keeping your environment or yourself tidy and clean, you’re not alone and help is available.

Difficulty managing clutter and messes isn’t considered a formal symptom of any type of bipolar disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).

Still, for some people with the condition, a tendency to overlook organization and cleanliness may be an early sign of a mood episode, especially if it isn’t your typical modus operandi.

Mood episodes with symptoms of depression, hypomania, and mania, can shift your energy levels, motivation, ability to focus, and cognitive function. These factors can lead you to feel more distracted, fatigued, or uninspired to clean and organize your space and yourself.

But, sometimes messiness can also be a sign of something else. For example, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is sometimes linked to clutter and messiness, and on occasions, to hoarding. If you’re living with both bipolar disorder and OCDyou may be more likely to overlook organization.

In fact, a 2018 study found that 33.8% of the participants who lived with bipolar disorder also had OCD.

People who live with depression, even during bipolar mood episodes, may be more likely to experience difficulty starting or completing tasks, including cleaning and organizing.

Formal symptoms of depression include:

  • a loss of interest in regular activities, including those you may have found pleasant at some point
  • fatigue and body aches and pains
  • lack of motivation to start and complete tasks
  • sense of hopelessness and feeling like “what’s the point?”
  • irritability and overwhelm
  • difficulty focusing and recalling information
  • low sense of worth

During an episode of depression, it can difficult to complete everyday tasks, which could lead to some messiness around your home and work space. Your symptoms could also make it more likely that you neglect personal hygiene and care during the episode.

An episode of mania or hypomania may involve feelings of grandiosity, racing or disorganized thoughts, and difficulty focusing on and completing tasks.

These could make it difficult for you to focus on cleaning and picking up after yourself.

You could also experience low impulse control, which could lead to overspending in some people. Overspending may result in a lot of purchases that you may not have room for at home. In turn, this could lead to cluttering.

All these behaviors during an episode of mania could make messiness more likely to occur for some people living with bipolar disorder.

Recent research on the link between cleaning and mood is sparse, but some experts suggest it has benefits.

“An organized home tends to produce more positive emotions like calmness and a sense of well-being,” he says Dr. Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Clutter represents unfinished business to our brains and this lack of completeness can be highly stressful.”

Schiff says cleaning and organizing may:

  • enhance concentration and focus
  • improve your mood
  • lower anxiety
  • offer a sense of accomplishment
  • provide a sense of control over your environment

Bipolar disorder can be managed and treatment is effective. Getting professional support can help you find relief for most of your symptoms, including difficulty with picking up after yourself.

Self-care is also important when you live with bipolar disorder, and these tips may help:

1. Consider working with your support system.

During episodes of mania or depression, it may help to have someone who understands what you’re going through. You could ask them to “keep you in check” by acting as a buffer between you and some behaviors.

For example, a friend or family relative may help you clean around your home when they know you’re going through an episode of depression. They may also distract you or stop you from overspending during a manic shopping spree.

If possible, try to get support wherever you can, he says Nick Bognara licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, California.

“It can be a terrific idea to tell trusted family members and friends, and to ask for the kind of support that can be helpful to get through those times,” he says. “When it’s available, even just having a little company or someone to help make sure your basic needs are met can make a world of difference.”

2. Start small to build momentum.

If you’re experiencing fatigue or low motivation, try to break down tasks into as small of parts as possible, so they feel more doable, says Ben Fridaya therapist in Sacramento, California.

“For example, instead of saying ‘I will clean the kitchen,’ it can be helpful to try ‘I will do the dishes’ – or just one dish, if that’s what you have energy for,” he says.

3. Try a timer.

Setting a timer may work some people get some tasks accomplished. You may find it helpful to try the 5-minute rule.

“Set a timer for 5 minutes and do what you can of your chores in that time,” advises Friday. “When the timer goes off, either give yourself a pat on the back and use an internal dialogue of self-kindness, try for another 5 minutes, or finish the task if you feel inclined.”

Working with the 5-minute rule may help you keep some things done while not getting overwhelmed or irritated.

4. Consider creating a plan.

“The challenge with depression is that the sludge can be so thick, and the moods can be so dark, that attempting to calculate what you should do is virtually impossible,” Bognar explains. “People do far better with the steps thought out ahead.”

That’s where a plan comes in.

You could work on this plan in between episodes, so you’re prepared once you notice your mood may be changing.

Try to be as specific as possible when coming up with a plan.

“‘Get some exercise’ is far too vague, but ‘walk around the block twice’ is excellent,” says Bognar. “People might need to instruct themselves to brush their teeth or do the dishes.”

Try to write down your plan as small tasks organized from less to more complex. When you’re having a difficult time, you can take the paper out and start working on the least complex tasks first.

5. Try to pair your chores.

Combining a difficult task with something pleasant may help, says Schiff.

“For example, say you need to do the dishes or some house cleaning,” she explains. “Pair this with something you enjoy, like listening to your favorite music at the same time or having your favorite show on in the background while you clean.”

Some people living with bipolar disorder may have difficulty completing tasks, including personal hygiene and chores. This could lead you to face cluttering, messiness, and disorganization during episodes of both mania or depression.

Managing the symptoms of bipolar disorder with the help of a mental health professional may reduce the likelihood of messiness in your life.

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