Is This Bipolar, or Just Burnout?

Alex Turner
Nov 2 · 9 min read

Emotional Turmoil, Mental Health & Daily Practices — the Subtle Differences Between Burnout & Bipolar, from an Enneagram 4

Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

This week I got bogged down — badly.

I got through it by the skin of my teeth, and so I’d actually sat down to write a pithy article, “5 Quick Tips on Getting Unstuck,” or something else along those lines, but what transpired on the page made me recoil in horror.

Yeah. A tricksy mental health stigma showed up and stared me down.

You see, I’m a Type 4 on the Enneagram — which means I can swing wildly from sheer joy to deep despair — and back to joy again — in a matter of minutes. It’s emotional turmoil.

And it’s par for the course — so I think it’s all normal.

I’ve got pretty comfortable with it — to what would apparently be most people’s discomfort. I’m pretty comfortable with those deep dark, intense emotions. And also the nicer, lighter, brighter ones... Hurrah.

It’s really not that abnormal for me to bounce up and down between them several times a day.

Are you thinking it yet?


This rollercoaster is not as exactly what I picture of when I think of balance, but in the last couple of years, I have learned that it’s how I am. I learned to roll with it, somewhat.

However, while it does have some perks, all that emotional bouncing up and down can get exhausting, and sometimes I don’t have the energy for it — and I think that’s where I came unstuck this week.

But as I began to write out what this week’s experiences, and some of my “top tips” for pulling through, I began to doubt myself.

It was beginning to sound, in the written word, an awful lot like… bipolar disorder. I had to stop and think.

Wait …..Could it be ….?

Fear rose up in me. Stigma tried to stifle me.

Of course, I’ve been down this path with my doctor. I’ve been down this path with Dr. Google many, many more times. (I love WebMD).

Every time, bipolar got ruled out almost immediately.

I have pretty erratic and intense emotions, and yes, they can bounce around like nobody’s business. I can have anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, calm and elation, all within 5 minutes of each other, but apparently it still isn’t bipolar.

So, excuse me — but what is bipolar?

Before we go any further, let’s just clarify. This isn’t medical advice, and I’m no expert. I do have a personal opinion on it — but on account of it not being my expertise, I’m going to stay in my lane, and I’m going to reserve that opinion, and any experiments, exclusively for myself.

Here’s why.

I know people with bipolar. I know how much it impacts entire lives. And whatever triggers it, causes it, or treats it — that’s not for me to say. I don’t judge.

But I do know this.

What I’m going through is entirely self-inflicted.

This week when I slid into a cycle of depression and anxiety, the ups just weren’t sticking as well as they ought to.

It was worse than normal, but this was not bipolar.

I’m pretty sure it’s just classic burnout.

A Type 4 That Got Carried Away, at the very least.


Mental health, or mental wellness as I like to think of it, is a bit of a minefield.

I feel like a lot of the time I can pass through okay, but now and again I step on one of those triggers, and then it’s just game over for a while. That’s not anything related to the Enneagram — that’s just being human. But as a Type 4, maybe, just maybe, I experience it a bit deeper.

It has felt like a life sentence at times — but it’s also a huge opportunity for reflection, for learning, and for growth.

I might be relatively new to the Enneagram, but I’m not new to my emotions — every single rowdy one of them.

My path, my whole journey through life, revolves around trying to hold them steady. I don’t want to medicate myself into mental health — that is a personal choice that I’ll hold on to as long as I can.

Mental wellness — I want to be able to cultivate it, nourish and nurture it.

I want to thrive — under my own steam.

So — I had to let go of the idea of balance. I no longer believe in it. I think that word is a weapon we invented to make ourselves even more miserable.

Gosh. Being human is just so much fun.


By the way, I warned you I’m a Type 4, yeah? My favourite colour is dark.


But all that emotional rollercoaster indulgence aside.

It’s not necessarily something that has to be “put up with”. It doesn’t have to be so hard.

There are solutions.

And so what I believe in are self-awareness, self-discipline, and self-care as the tools to hold everything in check.

These tools are invaluable.

Now and again, we might fall out of check, as I did this week — but it doesn’t have to last forever. It doesn’t even have to last long.
Sometimes I forget that, or I get caught up in it and I think it’s here to stay.

Oh, darling, but it’s not.

The key is just knowing how to get back on track. It doesn’t have to be rushed, but one way or another, it does have to happen.


This week the warning signs were all there.

It took me a bit of time to piece it all together and see the bigger picture.

… I was tired to the point of tears. Many tears. I could see only problems. I was going over and over the same ground, round and round in descending circles. I was frying myself with stress and anxiety.

By the time I realised it had gone a bit far, I was so far down the spiral that when I walked over a pedestrial bridge over a motorway, I actually got heart palpitations.

Time out.

For the record, suicidal ideation is not the same thing as being suicidal. This is a painful thing to write, but now and again I suffer these violent thought intrusions, suicidal ideation, and though I’m 110% sure I’ll never act on it — it still is really freaking scary.

And it’s the last straw, in a whole haystack of warning signs, that it’s time for me to be my own best friend.

So I went back to basics.

I did a check in.

And I found my way back to myself again.


Strategies for Coping and /or Healing

The worst thing about being a grown-up, I think, is not that we have to think of something to feed ourselves for dinner every night, every single day of our lives until the day that we die. (But that shit is hard.)

No.

It’s that it is a million billion times easier to give advice than to take it.

Which is why if I write that “10 ways to get out of burnout” — I better make damn sure I’m practising what I preach.

So here’s me, practising what I preach — and how it worked out this week, timeframes and all.

  1. Journaling. Five days ago I went back to daily long-form journaling (Morning Pages — or Creative Pages as I call it, because frankly, any time of day is good…..) I’d given this practice up over summer in the belief that bullet journaling was more effective, so I ditched a practice that I thought was simply indulging my own negative thought patterns. In truth, this journaling practice is useful to recognise and record where I’m at, and to process all of that. Daily journaling can really, really, really help see the wood — and precisely what kind of trees make it up. Which trees are important and which one’s aren’t.
  2. Talking. Three days ago I bored myself to tears with my very own sadness. My own words and my thoughts shocked me. It was a torrent of negativity. But pity parties can be more than pity parties if you’re paying attention — they are a sign that something isn’t right and that you need to take action. So I began to take more action.
  3. Meditation, Rest & Relaxation. Honestly, I’d been skimping on these. A few days ago I began to take time out every day to either meditate or consciously relax. That includes naps, by the way.
  4. Yoga. Two days ago I went back to my ashtanga practice. It hurt like hell because I haven't done it in donkey's years (3 months). That was some pretty strong action to take. And I began to feel again — I began to reconnect with myself and be able to separate my identity from my emotions (a pitfall for Type 4s).
  5. Walking. I like to walk, it helps me think clearly. But yesterday was the last straw — walking over a pedestrian bridge motorway, I’d started to panic. I was freaking out because the suicidal ideation I’d had earlier in the week was at the very front of my mind — but actually, this was just my mind rearing up, untamed, threatened, and going completely rogue. It was purely resistance, a reaction to me attempting to regain my self-discipline. Another sign. I needed to up the ante.
  6. Alternative Medicine. Today I booked in for an acupuncture treatment. It turns out my kidney meridian was out of whack — accounting for low energy and mood. So was my liver — accounting for stress, anxiety, and a hormone imbalance. And so was my stomach meridian — which is why my appetite is all over the place, and my digestive system is just buckling. No wonder I felt crap, stuck, low, rubbish — all of the things. My system, and any coping strategies were shot. The TCM doctor inserted some needles, and 45 minutes later I was quite literally bouncing off the walls with energy and clarity on the things that were burning me out. Not to be cliched, but in one short session, all my demons lifted.

This week was not a bipolar episode. Not for me anyway.

My main failing can be attributed to a series of poor decisions, or poor habits, over the last few months which culminated in what felt like my downfall this week.

I simply forgot to maintain my system.

Good mental health, in my book, is achieved through this trifecta of self-discipline, self-care and self-awareness. This is a framework for life and I swear by it. But it doesn’t always mean I do it.

Unfortunately, when I don’t actually practise them regularly, daily — the whole system breaks down.

I burn out.

For me, this isn’t about being bipolar — or a Type 4 — it’s just about being human.

But we have the tools at our disposal. We know what we need to do. Yet so often, we resist it.

My own resistance is massive. It has a whole arsenal, and it’ll bring out the big guns and convince me the end of the world is nigh.

But when I can get hold of the reins again — it’s a whole other story. It’s a story of health and wellness, clarity and calm, focus and productivity. It’s me at my best, versus me at my worst.

So — all in all.

Here’s my takeaway message.

Your Daily Practices Are So Important.

Your self-discipline is vital.

  • Pay attention to where you’re at — Journal. Talk. Listen to yourself.
  • Take care of your mind — meditate.
  • Take care of your body — do yoga, exercise, get fresh air — whatever you need to do.

And lastly — prevention is better than cure.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to be an incredibly powerful system, and I am beyond grateful to it coming to my rescue this week. Recently I’d let my maintenance protocol slide across the board — but I was shocked at how simply order can be restored.

Still. They say that in the East, medicine is about promoting health, whereas in the west it’s more about treating illness. I’m all about that.

But this week I needed the triage. Shit happens.

Going forward, I pledge to keep my daily practice, my maintenance protocol, in place.

I hope you are doing the same. And whatever your medicine is, whatever systems you use — keep them in check. And always, always, get the help when you need it.

Alex Turner

Written by

Founder, feminist, entrepreneur, coffee + self care

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