Can You Heal Bipolar Disorder?

Can you heal bipolar disorder? I remember asking that question when I was first diagnosed back in 1998. I struggled with accepting my diagnosis because there was no tangible evidence of my disorder. No blood tests or brain scans, just a lot of ambiguous, hard to define symptoms that felt like character flaws and moral failings to me. 

Then one of my doctors compared my diagnosis to having diabetes. He asked me if I would be embarrassed if I was diagnosed with type one diabetes and I told him no because diabetes is a clearly defined and measurable physical problem that causes your body to be unable to regulate your blood sugar. The treatment is to monitor and balance your blood sugar so your body can function in a healthy way. 

My doctor then told me the same was true for having bipolar. My brain chemistry was unable to regulate itself properly and we needed to find the right medication to help it function in a healthy way.

At the time this comparison really helped me accept my diagnosis and I believed that I would find the right medication and eventually be able to live well with my bipolar. But it wasn’t true. I didn’t understand that the diagnosis of bipolar is not based on the cause, it is based on the symptoms. The generally accepted treatment doesn’t treat the cause, it treats the symptoms. 

Treating the symptoms of bipolar doesn’t help people to heal. At best it helps them manage the symptoms a little better, at worst it causes additional damage to the body and mind and creates new problems and diagnoses. So why are alternative treatments that aim to identify and treat the causes of bipolar symptoms considered taboo? 

Normalizing Suffering

Something that is especially discouraging in the online “support” communities for bipolar disorder is the insistence that no one discuss any treatment for bipolar other than psychotropic medications. Alternative treatments, no matter how well researched or validated, are off limits and called dangerous. The result is that the groups end up normalizing suffering with bipolar.

Over half of the posts in these groups are people asking for advice on what to do about the terrible side-effects they are experienceing from their medications–weight gain, insomnia, lost libido, etc. The other half are people talking about the horrible symptoms they are continuing to experience even on medication–excessive spending, hypersexuality, explosive rage, etc. 

People continuously lament medication related issues like drastic weight gain or “medication hangovers” that make it feel impossible to wake up in the morning. They also talk about not being able to work or maintain healthy relationships and share feelings of fear and despair at the prospect that their life may never get any better. 

The medication route often doesn’t provide long-term relief for people either. Recently in an online group someone asked how many times people in the group had been hospitalized–the results were staggering! Dozens of people responded with numerous hospitalizations and several had been hospitalized over twenty times! It was so disheartening to see how much everyone was suffering! 

Another question in an online group was how many mood-swings is it normal to have in a year. The responses were varied, but the people responding found it normal to continue to experience mood swings, even on medications. They have been convinced that this will be normal for them for the rest of their life. Why? 

If so many people are suffering with continued mood swings, side-effects, poor quality of life and hospitalizations, why is medication continually propped up as the only “effective” treatment for bipolar? Why are alternative treatments that seek to identify and treat the cause of the symptoms considered taboo?

Healing my Bipolar

I was diagnosed with bipolar in 1998 and for the first decade after my diagnosis I actively sought treatment with psychotropic medications, but I just got progressively worse. In 2008 I was hospitalized multiple times, experienced my first psychotic episodes, had electroconvulsive therapy done on me causing major memory loss and made multiple suicide attempts. I was actively seeking treatment and nothing was working.

In 2010 my doctor and I discovered an alternative treatment option that was well researched and had a surprisingly high success rate in helping people manage or eliminate the symptoms of their bipolar. With the help of my doctor and the company’s customer support I was able to titrate off of my medications and onto the micronutrient treatment. 

My doctor admitted to me during this process that he normally would not have even considered this treatment option. He told me that the only treatment option they were taught in medical school was psychotropic medication and all of the continuing education is funded by the pharmaceutical companies. The only reason he was even willing to consider this alternative treatment was because he could see how hard I was trying with medication and how much I was suffering. He had become as desperate to help me as I was.

A few months after I started on the new treatment I woke up one morning and felt like I was finally truly awake for the first time in over a decade. It took several years for my brain to fully heal, but during that time I was so much more stable on the micronutrients than I had ever been on medication so I stuck it out. I am so grateful that I did! 

Over the past 13 years I have gradually learned the other tools necessary to heal my mind, eliminating triggers and finally becoming mentally healthy and balanced for the first time in my adult life. That is why I was so excited to start my blog! I wanted to share what I had learned. I wanted to help people suffering with bipolar to learn how to actually heal and become mentally well.

When I first started my blog at the end of 2020 I was filled with hope and enthusiasm for sharing what I had learned. Imagine my surprise when I joined online support groups for bipolar and discovered that there seemed to be no interest in helping people to actually get well. The groups seemed designed to create a space for everyone to struggle together. These groups perpetuated the idea that the best anyone with bipolar could hope for was suffering well with their disorder.

Alternative Treatments are Taboo

I soon discovered in the groups that if you could commiserate with a person on how they were suffering, you were allowed to comment. If you had tips for how to cope with side-effects from medication, you were allowed to comment. If you had recommendations for other medications that might work better, you were allowed to comment. 

If, however, you suggested that there might be an alternative treatment that would help heal their brain and eliminate symptoms and side-effects, you were censored and kicked out of the group. Even simply answering questions from people asking if anyone managed their disorder without medication would result in being removed from the groups.

The problem is that for decades–as my doctor admitted to me–we have been told that the only viable treatment option for bipolar is medication. But why? Medications are not actually treating the cause of bipolar, they only treat the symptoms. 

Treating Only the Symptoms, Not the Cause

There are risks for not seeking to identify and treat the underlying causes of bipolar symptoms. To use another medical analogy, if you have strep throat but the doctor doesn’t treat the strep just the symptoms–giving you something for your sore throat and something for your fever–you might get some short-term relief but it increases your risk for additional issues. The untreated strep could progress and cause further serious infections and even damage your kidneys or heart.

Medication can have potential value in the short term to treat the serious symptoms of bipolar like psychosis and suicidality. This is similar to giving a patient with strep ibuprofen to help bring their fever down temporarily to give the antibiotic time to work on the underlying infection. But long-term if a person wants to actually heal, they need to treat the underlying causes of their illness. If you want to live well with bipolar you need to identify and treat the causes of your symptoms. 

Some of the suggested causes of bipolar disorder symptoms are nutrient deficiencies that cause the chemicals in the brain to be out of balance. Severe, unhealed trauma has been linked to the occurrence of bipolar symptoms in many people. Bipolar symptoms are also perpetuated by unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealthy coping mechanisms like addiction and unhealthy boundaries. 

Long-term treatment that only addresses the symptoms of bipolar isn’t bringing relief and healing for most people, it is just prolonging and even compounding the suffering. People on medication long-term can also develop serious, permanent issues like tardive dyskinesia (TD), lowered immune system function, and damage to the liver or kidneys.

Healing Your Bipolar

It is possible to get to the bottom of what is causing your bipolar symptoms and heal. It will require a lifestyle change for your mind. This is why I created the Map to Wellness, to show you the way to healing.

Begin first, by learning to successfully manage your mood swings by creating a Mood Cycle Survival Guide. This will help you be proactive in managing your symptoms so you can lessen the impact they have on you and your family and shorten the duration of the mood cycle.

Second, identify what your brain needs to get healthy and balanced. There are organizations and doctors that are focused on helping people identify exactly what their body and brain need to function in a healthy, balanced way. Using a mood-tracking app will help you in this process to identify symptoms that can indicate specific deficiencies. This process takes some detective work, but it will be worth the effort as your brain begins to heal.

Third, working with a good, competent therapist is crucial. You need to identify and heal:

  • Trauma,
  • Unhealthy thought and behavior patterns,
  • Damaging coping mechanisms, and
  • Unhealthy boundaries.

This will take some time, so learn how to utilize therapy proactively and stick with it.

Fourth, develop a self-care routine that includes:

  • Mindfulness meditation,
  • Yoga,
  • Simple exercise,
  • Healthy, consistent sleep habits, and
  • Simplifying your life to eliminate unnecessary stressors.

Developing this self-care routine is a process. Learn and apply one tool at a time and you will eventually be able to create a lifestyle that will support you in living mentally and physically well.

Finally, seek support from others who are on the path to wellness with bipolar. It is important to have support and encouragement as you work on this life-style change for your mind. If you are a mom, or potential mom with bipolar join Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

You can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with your bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help! Are you tired of suffering and ready to live well with your bipolar? Get started on the Map to Wellness here!

What is Your Bipolar Treatment Plan?

treatment plan

What is your bipolar treatment plan? When I was initially diagnosed with bipolar the treatment plan my doctor gave me was to find the right combination of psychotropic medications. I actively pursued this treatment plan for over a decade but became progressively worse, culminating in multiple hospitalizations, electroconvulsive therapy–which caused memory loss and migraines–and multiple suicide attempts.

One of the most challenging issues with the generally accepted approach to treating bipolar disorder is that it does not treat the cause of bipolar, it treats the symptoms. This is because there is no consensus as to what causes bipolar. There are a number of theories, but none have been proven to be true for every person who displays the symptoms of the disorder. 

Bipolar is a disorder that is diagnosed based on mental and emotional symptoms. It is in many ways a subjective diagnosis with subjective criteria that can vary from person to person. 

Is Bipolar Like Diabetes?

Many people like to compare bipolar disorder to type one diabetes. I had a doctor use this comparison with me years ago to help me accept my diagnosis. It was easier to understand diabetes because it is a clearly defined physical disorder with measurable physical criteria and a universally accepted and generally effective treatment protocol.

When the comparison was first given to me I latched onto it because it was something concrete to help me understand something abstract. The comparison also helped my diagnosis feel more legitimate. It has been a helpful analogy over the years in some aspects. 

Yes…

I use this comparison with diabetes to help explain why mood and symptom tracking is so important with bipolar. When someone has diabetes they need to monitor their blood sugar on a regular basis to make sure they are proactive in keeping it in a safe range. 

Even though you cannot track your bipolar through blood levels it is helpful to track your symptoms and triggers. The more information you gather the more effective you can be in treating and managing your disorder.

It is also helpful to understand that even though you cannot measure the imbalance in your blood does not mean you are not experiencing a very real emotional and mental imbalance in your mind.

This comparison also helped me recognize the importance of having a plan to successfully manage my mood swings. A friend of mine who has diabetes told me once about the response plan she had for when her blood sugar was out of balance. It laid out a clear plan of action to manage her diabetes and what she and her loved ones would do if she was in a medical crisis. It saved her life on more than one occasion. 

I recognized the importance of developing a plan for managing my mood cycles successfully. I call it the Mood Cycle Survival Guide. Its purpose is to help me proactively manage my mood swings to:

  • lessen the impact of my mood cycles on me and my family and 
  • shorten the duration of the cycles.

…and No

The comparison to diabetes doesn’t work, however, when it comes to treatment plans. Diabetes has a clear, definable cause, and a consistent, generally effective treatment plan that addresses the underlying cause. The plan is the same for every person with diabetes–it doesn’t change from person to person.

The generally accepted treatment plan for bipolar, however, is not clear, consistent or generally effective. This is because it does not address the cause of the disorder, only the symptoms. Psychiatrists play guess and check with medications in an attempt to manage symptoms. 

At best someone with bipolar disorder may find some relief from symptoms with the first try, but it is much more common to have to try a number of different medications over many years. 

Medications can become ineffective over time and  medications are considered effective if the symptoms are brought into a “manageable range”. If someone is unable to find medications that will help them manage the symptoms of their disorder they are considered to be “treatment resistant.”

Most medications come with side-effects. Side-effects can range from mild irritations like fatigue and brain fog to more serious issues like major weight gain, loss of libido, long term damage to vital organs and sometimes even suicidality. Many people develop additional physical or mental health issues as the result of prolonged use of psychotropic medications resulting in additional medications being prescribed.

The general consensus with bipolar treatment seems to be the goal of helping the patient learn to suffer well with their disorder. I believed that for years. I didn’t have anyone to tell me anything different. 

Creating My Own Treatment Plan

Beginning in 2010 I began to discover tools and resources that addressed the causes of my bipolar disorder. As I developed this new treatment plan my brain began to heal. 

Medication to Micronutrients

The first part of the plan was figuring out what my brain needed to function in a healthy balanced way. My doctor and I found a non-profit company in Canada called Truehope that developed a treatment to address a suspected underlying cause of bipolar symptoms in many people–micronutrient deficiency in the brain. 

With the help of my doctor and Truehope’s customer support I went through the challenging process of titrating off of my medications–with the horrible withdrawal symptoms–and transitioning to the micronutrients. It was rough for a few months, but I woke up one day and it felt like I was truly awake for the first time in over a decade.

It still took years for my brain to completely heal from the effects of long-term psychotropic medication use, but eventually my mind became healthy and balanced.

Proactive Therapy

The second part of the plan was therapy. I learned through study that it is common for people with bipolar to have experienced trauma. The more I researched the link the more I began to suspect that unhealed trauma was contributing to my mood swings. When I finally began to utilize therapy diligently I learned the role that:

  • unhealed trauma
  • unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, 
  • unhealthy coping mechanisms, and 
  • unhealthy boundaries 

played in triggering mood cycles. I also learned how to be proactive in utilizing therapy as a tool for healing. 

Some valuable tips that will help you get the most out of therapy as a tool to heal your bipolar are:

  • Find the right therapist for you.
  • Give your therapist something to work with–they are not mind readers.
  • Use therapy proactively, not reactively.
  • Focus on healing not blaming.
  • You get out of therapy what you put into it.
  • Therapy takes time, be patient with the process.

Over the years I have identified and resolved the triggers of mood cycles. It became easier to recognize trauma responses and anxiety for what they were and work with the therapist to heal. 

Mindfulness Meditation

The next part of the treatment plan was mindfulness meditation. When you have a mental illness your mind feels like your enemy. You feel like a victim to racing, intrusive, irrational thoughts and become unsure of reality, afraid to trust yourself. Mindfulness meditation enables you to become friends with your mind again and puts you back in the driver’s seat of your life.

Many people learn some basic mindfulness techniques in therapy or during hospitalizations but do not gain the full benefit of mindfulness practice because they lack true understanding of why it works and how to practice it effectively. 

This was the case for me for many years. I had learned a few mindfulness techniques that had some minor impact as a “coping skill” for managing episodes of anxiety. When I really understood what mindfulness was and how to utilize it effectively it stopped being just a coping skill. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool that can aid in healing your mind.

Self-care

The final element to the treatment plan was learning how to put together a self-care routine that aided healing and helped me maintain balanced mental and emotional health. The basic elements of self-care for bipolar include:

  • Exercise (keep it simple, easy and accessible)
  • Yoga
  • Healthy, consistent sleep habits
  • Good nutrition
  • Hygiene habits
  • Carefully evaluating and managing stressors

Why did I have to figure this out myself???

After over 10 years putting together my treatment plan and learning how to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar I began to wonder why I had to figure this out for myself? None of the pieces in my plan are really unique or mysterious, so why was I left to discover it on my own? This was the inspiration for starting my blog.

It shouldn’t have taken me over twenty years to learn how to live well with bipolar! I shouldn’t have been led to believe that the best I could expect from a life with bipolar was just suffering well. I should have been given a treatment plan to treat the causes of my bipolar, not just medication to manage the symptoms.

I created the Map to Wellness to teach the treatment plan I use so that you can learn how to live well with your bipolar, too! If you:

✔️commit to the path, 

✔️choose to take the steps, and 

✔️recommit yourself each day to continue the journey,

you can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar.

If you’re tired of being controlled by your disorder and are ready to live well, then let’s get started!

Should I Have Children If I Have Bipolar Disorder?

One question I hear frequently is:

 “Should I have children if I have bipolar disorder?” 

This question and the worry underlying it are understandable. There are so many unknowns with motherhood from the stress of pregnancy and hormone changes to the worries over the unpredictability of motherhood and passing on mental illness to your children. 

While there is not a one size fits all answer to these questions, learning how to proactively manage your disorder will prepare you to be successful as a mother with bipolar. 

Mindset

The first thing to address is your mindset about your disorder. It is essential to acknowledge that you have bipolar and that you are responsible for treating it consistently if you want to have children. 

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness and can be dangerous, even life threatening if it goes untreated. It is possible to live well with bipolar disorder if you proactively treat it and that begins with:

  • accepting that you have bipolar, 
  • not comparing yourself to others without bipolar, and 
  • understanding what wellness with bipolar disorder looks like.

Accept that you have bipolar

Acknowledge that you have bipolar disorder and take ownership for treating it. Although this seems like it should go without saying, many people struggle with accepting their diagnosis. You might wonder if you were diagnosed correctly in the first place–bipolar is diagnosed using such intangible symptoms. 

You may go through periods when you start to feel healthy and balanced and begin to think that maybe the diagnosis was wrong or that you don’t have it anymore. There are also periods when you will feel angry about your diagnosis and refuse to treat it because you are sick of how hard everything is. Regardless of what prompts your denial it can be a major barrier to living well with your disorder. 

Do not compare yourself to others–you are not broken!

Women have difficulty not comparing themselves to each other already. As a society there is tremendous pressure to conform to certain “ideals” of womanhood from many different directions. This is amplified by social media where people post their “highlight” reels and distorted versions of reality which can cause you to feel inadequate, or worse. 

With bipolar it is even more important to not compare yourself to others without the disorder because it can create a barrier to learning to live well. The pressure to be and do everything can prevent you from eliminating unnecessary stressors while you learn how to effectively manage your bipolar.

Recognize what “wellness” with bipolar disorder looks like

For years as I was trying to learn how to live well with bipolar, I always thought of wellness as a linear path–like climbing a mountain–with the destination being never having a mood swing again. The problem this created for me is that I felt like I had failed each time I experienced a mood cycle. One time I had been healthy and balanced for months and then suddenly became depressed and I was so angry. I went to see my therapist and told her that I felt like a failure. I had been almost to the top of the mountain and now I was all the way back down at the bottom again!

That day my therapist helped me to understand that learning to live well with bipolar is not a linear process. It looks more like the addiction recovery cycle where there will be times when you relapse into mood swings, but this isn’t failure. The key is to learn how to successfully manage your mood cycles so that you can lessen the impact on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycle. 

Preparing for Motherhood with Bipolar

Once you have acknowledged the reality of your disorder and your responsibility to treat it you can start learning the tools on the path to wellness with bipolar. 

Mood Cycle Survival Guide

One of the most important tools you will have as a mother with bipolar disorder is your Mood Cycle Survival Guide. While you are learning to live well with bipolar disorder you need to have a plan to help you successfully manage your mood swings. This guide will help you:

  • Minimize the impact on the mood-swing on yourself and your family, and
  • Shorten the duration of the mood-swing by creating a plan to get back to mental health and balance.

Be Intentional about Prioritizing Self-care 

If a mother has diabetes, she needs to be very deliberate and conscientious about prioritizing her self-care–monitoring her blood sugar, eating healthy and caring for her overall health. If she doesn’t take care of herself, she won’t be able to take care of her children because there can be serious, sometimes life-threatening consequences if she’s not careful. 

The same is true for a mother with bipolar disorder. Self-care for bipolar is essential to keep yourself and your children safe and healthy. This includes:

Balancing your brain chemistry

Most people with bipolar disorder need some form of intervention to address the imbalance in the brain. This can look different for different people. Some people do well on medication, while others, like me, find healing with specialized micronutrient treatments. 

If you take medication, it is necessary to discuss with your doctor which medications are safe to take while pregnant or nursing. Remember to stay consistent with your psychiatric appointments and monitor your mood and symptoms consistently during and after pregnancy as hormone changes can affect your body and brain chemistry. 

Regardless of the type of treatment you choose it is essential to stay consistent with taking your medications or micronutrients and ask for help immediately if you start to notice changes in your mood.

Working with a therapist

Therapy is essential for anyone who wants to learn how to live well with bipolar and it is especially important as you enter parenthood. Anxiety and worry can increase, and unhealed trauma may be revealed as you enter this new phase of life. Working with a competent therapist is critical to help you navigate the new challenges and continue to work on identifying unhealthy thoughts, behaviors and coping mechanisms, processing and healing trauma, and setting healthy boundaries.

Developing a daily routine

Setting up a healthy daily routine specifically to manage your bipolar disorder is going to help you manage stress and live healthier–body and mind. Each of the tools listed here are important but you need to learn one at a time and figure out the best way to incorporate them into your day.

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Exercise (keep it simple, easy and accessible)
  • Yoga
  • Healthy, consistent sleep habits
  • Good nutrition
  • Hygiene habits
  • Carefully evaluating and managing stressors

Get support from other moms with bipolar disorder

Motherhood with bipolar disorder can feel lonely and isolating because you feel like no one understands the challenges you are facing. Join our Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well to get encouragement and support from other moms on the same journey.

As a mother with bipolar disorder, I can tell you that it wasn’t always easy. I was very sick with my disorder when my children were little. Over time I discovered how to live well with bipolar. I started my blog to share what I learned so you don’t have to figure it out the hard way like I did. 

I am forever thankful for my children. They are the greatest joys of my life, and I am filled with gratitude every day to be their mother. You can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar–including children–if you choose to:

  • Shift your mindset to accept your disorder, don’t compare yourself to others and learn what wellness with bipolar looks like, and
  • Prepare for motherhood by proactively treating your bipolar.

 There is hope and there is help!

New Year’s Resolutions for Bipolar Disorder: The Road to Wellness

New Years Resolutions for bipolar

It’s that time a year again, when many people resolve to make changes in their life to improve in some way. The new year feels like a natural time to consider life and the changes that you want to make. You want to start off the next chapter better than the last one.

Social media is filled with people talking about their New Year’s resolutions. Advertisers are encouraging you to make big changes in your life–change your eating habits, lose weight, get organized, clean your house, start a new hobby, and on and on.

When you have bipolar disorder, New Year’s resolutions can be a trigger for a mood cycle because they often involve major lifestyle changes that can trigger mania or depression. The motivation behind the resolution is easy to understand–you don’t like your life the way it is now. The damage caused by manic or depressive episodes can make you feel desperate. 

Living with bipolar disorder is really hard. You often feel like you aren’t in control of yourself or your life and that makes you feel helpless and discouraged. You think maybe a major change is the answer. Start eating healthy, or exercising regularly, or get more organized and then you will be able to live well with your disorder. When the next mood swing happens, it feels like you failed, and this can lead to frustration and hopelessness. 

Why keep trying so hard if it doesn’t change anything anyway? You can’t help it! It’s not your fault! It’s not fair! But, you don’t want to keep living like this so what do you do?

It is possible to learn to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar, but it isn’t going to happen overnight. A big resolution committing to major change all at once isn’t wise or healthy with bipolar. The best approach is a steady commitment to making one change at a time, one step at a time on the road to wellness. 

 

Step One: Mindset

The first step is recognizing that learning to live well with bipolar requires a mindset shift. There can be some mental and emotional barriers to fully accepting your disorder and committing to managing it well. It is easy to feel like you don’t have any control and develop a victim mindset. The problem with this is that it doesn’t help. Your life just continues to be hard, and you don’t make any progress towards wellness. Three ways that you need to shift your mindset are:

  • Don’t compare yourself. Don’t compare yourself to who you were or thought you should be. Don’t compare yourself to others who don’t have bipolar. Learn to love and appreciate yourself for who you are. 
  • Allow yourself to grieve. It is normal to mourn the loss of who you were, or thought you were, and then you can look forward and embrace who you are and who you can become.
  • Understand the recovery cycle. Learning how to apply the recovery cycle to yourself will help you to stop feeling like you have failed when you have manic or depressive episodes and choose to accept more responsibility for yourself and your disorder.

Step Two: Manage Your Mood Swings

The next step is to learn to manage your bipolar mood swings successfully using the Mood Cycle Survival Guide (MCSG). Eventually the goal is to lessen the frequency and intensity of the mood swings, but while you are in the process of learning how to live well with your bipolar you need to utilize the MCSG to minimize the impact of the mood cycles on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycles.

The Mood Cycle Survival Guide helps you successfully manage your mood cycles by helping you:

  • Identify the people you can ask for help when you’re struggling in a mood cycle.
  • Identify your symptoms and what triggers a mood cycle.
  • Develop a plan for self-care to aid in recovery.
  • Plan for getting back to health and balance.

Start building your own FREE Mood Cycle Survival Guide by clicking here.

 

Step Three: Work Towards Maintenance Mode

Once you have a plan to successfully manage your mood swings you can learn the tools that help you spend more time in maintenance mode–healthy, balanced and productive. You do this by:

  1. Find the treatment your brain needs to be balanced. While there are different treatments that work for different people, most people need some intervention to help their mind function in a healthy way. Some people have found mental balance with medication while others, like me, were able to heal their brains with specialized micronutrient treatments. To learn more about my experience with medication and alternative treatments click here.
  1. Work with a therapist. Living with bipolar you will have periods of time when you are manic or depressed and you have irrational thoughts–you experience the world through a distorted lens. This leads to developing unhealthy thoughts and behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms. It is also common for people with bipolar to have unhealthy boundaries and unhealed trauma. All of these things can cause you to continue to trigger mood cycles, even if you have found the medication or micronutrients to balance your brain. Working with a therapist will help you to heal and resolve your triggers, enabling you to be more mentally well.
  1. Develop a self-care routine. Self-care is something critical for living well with bipolar. This will take time to develop as each piece needs to be learned and integrated one at a time. Some important tools for self-care include:
    • mindfulness meditation
    • Exercise (keep it simple, easy and accessible)
    • Yoga
    • Healthy, consistent sleep habits
    • Good nutrition
    • Hygiene habits
  2. Simplifying your life. This is especially important in the beginning. Stress is a major trigger for mood swings and in order to learn to live well with bipolar you need to eliminate unnecessary stressors while you are learning to manage your bipolar successfully. Working with a therapist can be especially helpful in this process. 

What is Your One Next Step?

Hanging in my office is a quote that has special meaning to me in my life. 

“I may not soon make it to the top, but I can do this next step right now.”

–Scott Whiting

Whenever I get overwhelmed or start to feel discouraged, I focus on just the one next step.

Learning to live well with bipolar disorder is not a linear process, there will be ups and downs, mania and depression on the way. Choosing to focus on the one next step, however, will empower you to keep moving forward on the road to wellness. 

If you are struggling with a manic or depressive episode, focus on using your ERP to successfully manage it. When you haven’t found the right medication or micronutrient treatment, focus on that. 

The key is making the commitment to the journey to wellness and then taking one step at a time on that road. It is a journey, not an event. You are working on a lifestyle change for your mind and that takes patient, persistent effort. 

This new year instead of resolving to make major changes in your life that could result in a mood cycle resolve to take your first step on the road to wellness with bipolar and stay on that road, one step at a time.

 

Pro-tip: Get encouragement and support from others on the same road

Trying to live well with bipolar disorder can feel like a lonely road. Don’t travel alone! Seek out others who are on the same road to wellness. There is hope and there is help. 

If you are a mom (or potential mom) with bipolar, join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well to get encouragement and support on your journey.

Bipolar Disorder: Lessons from the Pandemic

I remember when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in the beginning of 2020 and the shutdown started I was relieved at first. I was struggling at the time with managing what felt like overwhelming commitments, so having everything canceled all at once was a huge relief. 

That reprieve was short lived, however, as the previous, predictable stressors were replaced by new, unpredictable ones. I was obsessively watching the news and the case count. I was overwhelmed by the requirements of online schooling and trying to keep my children on task all day long. 

I was dealing with my own fears about what was happening and also carrying the burden of my children’s fear, disappointments and pain as their world was turned upside-down.  To top it off, every time I left the house it felt like traversing a minefield, wondering if today was the day I would contract Covid.

I was also deprived of many of my self-care tools–going to the gym, hanging out with friends and family and going to therapy in person. It didn’t take long to settle back into old, unhealthy coping mechanisms that wore on my mental health and caused me to get severely depressed.

Increasing Mental Illness

The experience I had during the pandemic was not uncommon. There was a surge in the number of people struggling with mental health challenges because of the increase in stressors and decrease in the normal healthy outlets for the stress. 

The pandemic made clear the damaging effect of a serious, prolonged crisis on individual mental health. Numerous studies have been conducted on the impact of the pandemic on mental health with estimates of the increase in rates of depression and anxiety ranging from a 25% increase cited by the World Health Organization1 to a massive six times increase found in a study conducted by Boston College2.

Having bipolar disorder can make you especially sensitive to major stressors. Disruptions to routine and increases in mental or emotional strain can trigger mood cycles that then add to the distress. This means it is essential to learn to be proactive with your bipolar and prepare to handle stressors more effectively. 

Becoming Proactive

Since there is no cure for bipolar disorder, mood cycles will be a reality of life going forward. If you fight your bipolar or ignore it, you will lose. The alternative is to accept that you have bipolar and learn the tools to live well with it. 

You can learn to manage your disorder so that you stay in maintenance mode for longer periods of time and the severity of the mood cycles can lessen. But you will still have cycles and it is essential to learn how to deal with them more effectively. 

Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

Accept the reality of your mood cycles by developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). An ERP helps you proactively manage your mood cycles in order to lessen the impact of the mood cycle on you and those you love and shorten the duration of the cycle.

In this plan you:

  • Identify your Emergency Response Team – who are the people who are willing and able to offer support and what are the boundaries you set for that assistance?
  • Develop an Early Warning System – What are your triggers and what are the symptoms that indicate you are experiencing a mood cycle?
  • Determine your Auxiliary Power – When you have limited emotional and mental resources during a cycle, what are your priorities?
  • Learn how to Reboot Your System – How do you get yourself back to maintenance mode?

The more you utilize your ERP the more effective a tool it becomes in helping you proactively manage your mood cycles. Each time you use your ERP you can evaluate it to see what worked and what you can improve. To get a free guide to create a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan click here.

Back-up Supply of Medications or Supplements

The second priority is to prepare a back-up supply of medication or supplements–ideally a month. The pandemic presented some unexpected challenges like supply chain shortages, shipping issues and the shutdown caused many doctor’s offices to cancel or postpone appointments. Running out of medication or supplements that you need to keep your brain and emotions balanced can be dangerous. Discuss with your doctor what you can do to be prepared for a situation like this.

Counseling or Therapy

Third, counseling or therapy. Learn to use therapy proactively rather than waiting until you are in crisis. Therapy is a crucial tool for managing bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is truly “all in your head” and it can affect the way you see the world. Therapy can help you identify, process and heal trauma, unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and unhealthy boundaries. Using therapy proactively will eliminate some triggers and help you manage others more effectively.

Self-care

The next step is developing a healthy and sustainable self-care routine. This includes tools like mindfulness meditation, simple, accessible exercise and yoga. Going through the pandemic revealed some issues with my self-care routine. 

Prior to the pandemic shutdowns I was going to the local recreation center for exercise each day, and my youngest was going to the child watch. When the shutdown occurred I no longer had access to the gym or childcare. I struggled for months because I wasn’t exercising. I finally realized how important it was to have a way to exercise that isn’t dependent on anyone or anything else. That was when I started running again and doing simple HIIT and yoga workouts in my living room.

The benefits to the change in my routine have been that I:

  • Save money on gym membership and childcare,
  • Save time traveling to and from the recreation center,
  • Have a simplified self-care routine that is easier to sustain, and
  • Have improved mental health because I am more consistent with my self-care.

Support System

Finally, it’s important to cultivate a support system. One of the big challenges during the pandemic was the feeling of isolation. That coupled with the increase in the use of social media caused many people to become more depressed and anxious. 

It is critical to develop a support network that you can stay connected with, even if it is only virtually. This connection helps you have the mental and emotional support you need to navigate highly stressful situations and experiences. 

Some people to remember in your support system are:

  • professional support (psychiatrist/therapist), 
  • family and friends, and 
  • group therapy or online support groups

During the pandemic I was grateful for my support system. I was able to meet virtually with my therapist. My siblings and I started using Marco Polo and Zoom to chat online with each other. I joined some Facebook groups to find support from the bipolar community, although I discovered that some of the groups were not very helpful. 

I was looking for a community of individuals with bipolar that were trying to live well with it. The negative experiences I had led me to create Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well. It’s important that the groups you join support your goals to live well. This Facebook group is designed to offer support from others who understand what you’re going through and proactive solutions to help you learn to live well with bipolar.

The pandemic was a stressful experience, one that I am not in a hurry to repeat. However, it has helped me to identify ways that I can be more proactive and better manage my bipolar disorder and for that I am grateful. It is possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help!

Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

mental health vs. mental illness

Over the past few years there has been an increase in the public discussion of mental health due to the increasing stressors in the world. This is such a positive shift towards awareness of mental health needs and challenges. One important aspect of this conversation is the distinction between mental health vs. mental illness. These terms are not interchangeable, and understanding the definitions of both and their relationship is important for anyone seeking treatment.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) definition of mental health: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”

The CDC definition of mental illness: ‘“conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, or behavior.” These can include but aren’t limited to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.’

Another way to put it is:

Mental health is to mental illness

what physical health is to physical illness.

Physical Illness

There are different ways that our bodies can become physically ill, some examples are:

  • You can contract a virus or disease that is temporary and can be healed over time, sometimes requiring outside intervention–like contracting the flu or a sinus infection.
  • You can develop a disease that may have some genetic predisposition but was brought on by neglected health–like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
  • You can experience physical trauma that causes damage–like a broken leg.
  • You can be born with or develop a disorder that causes the body to need external assistance–like type one diabetes.
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch

While some illnesses may be the result of negligence or poor personal care, most people acknowledge the value and importance of professional intervention in the care and treatment of these physical ailments. In general physical illness and disorder is not stigmatized and people will seek treatment for their illnesses or injuries.

Mental Illness

Unfortunately, the same is not always true for mental illnesses. Our society has made great progress towards acknowledgement and acceptance of mental illness, but there are still stigmas that cause people to resist diagnosis and treatment. The result is unnecessary suffering.

Mental illnesses, according to the CDC website, are among the most common health conditions in the United States.

  • More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
  • 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
  • 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Mental illness has a broad range of causes and diagnoses, just like physical illness. 

  • Some people can have a temporary illness brought on by environmental factors or as a companion with physical illness. 
  • Some may neglect their mental health and suffer a breakdown or the onset of chronic issues like anxiety or depression.
  • Others may experience severe trauma that causes emotional or mental damage resulting in mental illness.
  • Some people are born with a genetic predisposition to developing a mental illness.

Years ago I was struggling with accepting my diagnosis and need for treatment. My psychiatrist at the time asked me if I would feel the same if I had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I said no, of course not. Diabetes is a real, very serious disorder that if not treated could result in serious illness and even death. The doctor then told me that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder was no different. 

He said that bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in my brain that, if not treated, will continue to get worse and cause me to get more ill, and possibly even die. He told me that with proper treatment, however, I can live a healthy, balanced life, just like someone with diabetes who treats their disorder regularly.

This comparison shifted my thinking about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and helped me to focus on treatment and learning the tools necessary to live well with bipolar. To learn more about accepting your diagnosis see Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief.

Over the years I have discovered that there are many tools that are necessary to properly treat my bipolar disorder. As I have learned each new piece it has helped me to live a healthier, more balanced and more productive life.

Medication and Supplementation

This one is the most obvious, but also one of the most difficult. One of the biggest reasons for this is that there is not an exact science to identify which medication or combination of medications will be right for each person. I used to say that my doctor was playing “guess and check” with my meds to try and find the right ones. 

For me, finding medications that worked never happened. I really wanted to get well, and I tried everything my doctors prescribed. But I struggled with terrible side-effects and was often not able to tolerate a therapeutic dose of the medication. 

Thankfully after over a decade of struggling and searching my doctor and I found a nonprofit that had developed a micronutrient treatment specifically for people with bipolar disorder. After my doctor reviewed the studies that had been done on the treatment he agreed to help me transition to the micronutrients, and they worked! 

A few months after I switched to the micronutrients I woke up one morning and felt like I was truly awake for the first time in over a decade. To learn more about my experience with medication and supplements see my post Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work.

The struggle to find the right combination of medication and/or supplements can feel discouraging at times, but most people with bipolar disorder need something to help their brain function in a healthy way. Thankfully there are any number of options to help doctors in the process of discovering what each patient needs to get balanced. Additionally, there are a growing number of practitioners that are discovering the benefits of micronutrients in the treatment of bipolar disorder.

Counseling and Therapy

This is another tool that may seem obvious but many people, like me, resist going to counseling. For me, it was the result of stigmas, and a misunderstanding of what counseling was. Growing up I had heard a relative frequently say, “my therapist said this” or “my therapist said that” and I remember thinking “I will never let someone else tell me what to think.” Unfortunately, the result was that when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I said I was willing to take medication, but I refused to go to counseling. 

Over the years, however, I discovered that counseling is an essential tool to help someone with bipolar disorder learn how to live well. When you have bipolar disorder you frequently see the world through a distorted lens and can develop unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealthy boundaries and may have unhealed trauma. All of these can continue to cause mood cycles, even after the medication or supplements are correct. To learn more about counseling see my post Bipolar Disorder: Counseling is Essential.

Mood Cycle Survival Guide

An especially valuable tool for proactively managing your bipolar disorder is a Mood Cycle Survival Guide. This guide helps you successfully navigate your mood swings, rather than reactively just suffering through them. 

In this plan you:

  • Identify your Response Team
  • Develop an Early Warning System
  • Determine your Power Priorities
  • Learn how to Reboot Your System

Using this guide will help you proactively care for your mood cycles to lessen their impact on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycle. Get your free guide to create your own Mood Cycle Survival Guide here.

Self-care Routine

Developing a self-care routine that you do daily to keep your brain and body healthy and balanced is also essential. Some important tools in your self-care toolbox are:

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Exercise

To learn more about self-care see my post Bipolar Disorder: Self-care.

You Have a Choice

Years ago, I had a friend whose father developed type 2 diabetes. His doctors gave him strict instructions about how he needed to care for himself in order to keep himself healthy. He was told he could live a long, healthy life if he was willing to follow the care instructions given to him by his doctor. Unfortunately, he didn’t listen. He liked the habits he had that were against the doctor’s orders and he lost his legs, his eyesight, and ultimately his life.

Bipolar disorder is a treatable mental illness. It isn’t necessary to suffer indefinitely, being at the mercy of your mood swings and doing damage to your life and relationships. It is not easy, but it is absolutely possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life if you are willing to do the work necessary to learn each of the tools. There is hope and there is help!

If you are a mom with bipolar disorder and you are looking for support in your journey to live well join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

What Are Your Bipolar Emotions Saying?

One of my favorite animated children’s films is Inside Out by Disney. It makes you laugh, cry and is a genuinely wonderful movie. But more than that, it is extremely insightful and teaches some powerful lessons, even for adults.

One of the messages of the film is that emotions aren’t good, or bad, they just are. And not only that but they also have a purpose. Learning to understand the purpose of the emotions is a powerful thing. Instead of judging and shaming yourself negatively for experiencing certain feelings, you can learn to feel them without judgement. You can learn to understand what your emotions are trying to tell you, and then what action you should take based on what you are experiencing.

In the film Inside Out, the main character Joy, gives a breakdown of what each feeling’s purpose is: Fear is “good at keeping Riley safe,” Disgust “basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially,” Anger “cares very deeply about things being fair,” Joy’s job is to keep Riley happy, and Joy doesn’t understand what Sadness is supposed to do, and keeps trying to prevent Sadness from having any influence on Riley.

As the film goes on it becomes apparent that Sadness has a very important role to play for Riley. When Joy finally understands Sadness’s purpose, she encourages Sadness to play her part. With the help of Sadness, Riley is able to get the help she needs to adjust to the changes and challenges she is facing in her life.

When the brain is functioning in a healthy balanced way, feelings are produced by experiences. For example, in the movie fear is caused by Riley encountering dangerous situations, disgust is caused by encountering unappealing food or social situations, and anger is brought on by perceived unfairness.

What If Your Emotions Are “Misfiring”?

What do you do when your emotions are misfiring because of mental illness or unhealed trauma? If emotions are not being triggered by normal outside stimuli, are they no longer valid or useful? Should you label your emotions as bad, or not listen to them when you are experiencing a mood cycle?

Not necessarily.

One of the challenges I faced when I was first diagnosed was that I didn’t know how to trust my feelings anymore. For the years that I went undiagnosed I had listened to the feelings that I was having and tried to interpret them according to what I had been taught by others. 

When I felt the intense, euphoric exhilaration of mania I believed that all the irrational thoughts that were in my head were not only rational but inspired. I made sweeping changes because of those thoughts and feelings, and I told everyone. It all felt right and real.

When I crashed into depression, I believed all of the negative, self-destructive thoughts that were in my head because they matched the negative, self-destructive feelings I was having. I hid myself from the world and tried to numb my brain by binge-watching television and movies.

I develop irrational thought and behavior patterns based on this cycle and by the time I was diagnosed those patterns seemed normal to me. This continued for years after my diagnosis because even though I was trying to find the right combination of medications to balance my brain and working with a therapist nothing seemed to help and I just felt broken and hopeless.

How do you live a healthy life if you don’t know if you can trust your own mind and feelings? It can make you feel insecure and unsure of yourself. Or you may feel belligerent and angry and decide that you should be able to just live on the rollercoaster because that is the way you were made and everyone else will have to just deal with it (see my post Bipolar Disorder: The Rollercoaster).

One important tool to develop when you are trying to learn to live well with bipolar disorder is to learn how to recognize when feelings are produced a mood imbalance. You need to learn to identify the signs that you are manic or depressed and then understand that state of mind is trying to tell you. 

The feelings produced by a mood imbalance can serve a purpose. It is like they are speaking a different language and if you learn to interpret them correctly you can then understand how to respond in a way that is healthy, even if your brain isn’t healthy at the time.

How Do You Identify Signs of a Mood Cycle? 

In the beginning it may be difficult to distinguish between healthy emotional responses and unhealthy ones, because it all feels normal to you. For this reason it is critical to begin tracking your moods and symptoms. Tracking your mood and symptoms will begin to help you create a more accurate picture of what is happening in your mind and identify when you are experiencing a mood cycle, what the associated symptoms of your mood cycles are and even what may have triggered it.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this. You could use a journal, a spreadsheet, or an app. My favorite tool is the Bearable app. (I DO NOT receive any benefit or compensation from recommending Bearable, I recommend it because I love it!) 

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

I struggled with using a mood journal because it required me to think and often I couldn’t think clearly enough to put what I was feeling into words. I also struggled with remembering to write things down frequently enough to create an accurate picture. Another issue I struggled with is how to convey what I had written to my doctor and therapist. Weeks and pages of journal entries can be difficult to condense and quantify, and that can make it challenging to see patterns and connections.

The Bearable App is fantastic because it is very user friendly. It allows you to keep track of your mood, different factors that could trigger cycles, medications, sleep, and other helpful information. The app is very easy to use, and you can set reminders for yourself to input your information each day. It is very customizable, and it gives you a way to view insights to see trends and connections.

When you discover the symptoms of your mood cycle you can learn to understand what your depression or mania is trying to tell you and you can then respond to it in a healthy way.

Learning How to Respond to a Mood Cycle

Some of the ways you might respond are:

  1. Discussing a medication or micronutrient change with your doctor or customer support. If the mood cycle is being caused by medication or micronutrients not doing their job, you may need to adjust or change them. Always work with your doctor if you are on medication or customer support if you are taking micronutrients. DO NOT make these changes on your own as it can be dangerous.
  2. Working with a therapist. A good therapist can help you learn to identify if your emotional responses to things are healthy or unhealthy and how to handle the unhealthy responses in a healthy, balanced way. Your therapist can also help you identify if your mood cycle is triggered by unhealed trauma, unhealthy thought or behavior habits, or unhealthy boundaries. 
  3. Learning to practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a very effective tool to help you learn to separate yourself from your thoughts and feelings in a way to look at them more objectively and determine if those thoughts or feelings are healthy or unhealthy. Mindfulness is an important tool to learn if you want to learn how to live well with bipolar disorder.
  4. Developing a Mood Cycle Survival Guide. Your guide will help you learn how to successfully manage your bipolar mood swings, lessening the impact on you and your family and shortening the duration of the cycle.

Just like Joy learned that Sadness served an important purpose in Riley’s mind, you can learn to understand what your mania and depression are telling you and learn to respond in a healthy way, even if your mind is unhealthy at the time. Taking responsibility for your mood cycles, instead of giving into them or fighting them will help you progress on your journey to live well with bipolar disorder.

If you are a mother with bipolar and you are looking for support in your effort to live well with it, please join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

Bipolar Disorder: Yoga for Your Mind and Body

The first yoga pose I ever remember doing was Child’s Pose. I remember reading about it in an article when I was in college. The article stated it was a restorative pose that helps to stretch the back muscles and relieve stress. I used the pose frequently to stretch my tense back, and I loved the calm I felt when I was in the pose.

My next experience with yoga was several years later when I was a mother with young children. A friend of mine invited me to go to a yoga class with her. I had never been to a yoga class before, but I loved it from the first. I loved how the stretching and calm approach made me feel physically, mentally and emotionally.

I only went to a few classes because finding childcare was difficult and I couldn’t afford the class fees. But I really loved how I felt when I did yoga. In the years after that I sporadically practiced yoga with DVDs and YouTube videos. I loved doing yoga, but because I was still relatively new to the practice I didn’t fully appreciate how beneficial yoga could be to my mental, emotional and physical health.

Finally, a couple of years ago I stumbled across Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. I was looking for yoga stretches to help me with running and found some videos of hers. I really love her videos. She is easy to follow and understand in the directions she gives. She also has a calming, positive voice and presence that help you feel that she really cares about you and your wellbeing and she genuinely wants to assist you. 

It was also around the time that I was learning about mindfulness meditation (see my post on Mindfulness). As I was learning about mindfulness I discovered what is referred to as “mindful movement.” It was yoga poses! 

I started to learn more about how your muscles can take a beating from your mind when you are unaware of what is happening in your thought processes. You store tension, anxiety, anger, fear, etc. in your muscles and it wears you out. The negative emotions and thoughts are amplified by your physical reactions that are happening automatically, without you even being aware of it.

Yoga is a fantastic exercise for the mind and body that helps to counteract the brain’s assault on the body. When coupled with mindfulness meditation practice, yoga can help you to improve your physical, mental and emotional health dramatically. 

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

First, yoga helps you release tension and stress in your body.

When I first started doing yoga I thought it was just a fancy way of stretching. I knew all about stretching because I was an athlete in high school and college. My coaches were always reminding us how important it is to stretch before and after practice to protect your muscles from injury. But I had never cried when I stretched–unless I hurt myself. 

The first time I cried during one of my first yoga classes I was caught off guard. I wasn’t in pain, in fact the crying felt good. It felt like all of the anxiety, stress and built up tension trapped in my body was being released. It was so therapeutic and cathartic. I find myself crying occasionally when I practice yoga and I have learned that this is helping my body and mind to let go of emotional stress that had built up in muscles. 

Second, you learn to mindfully focus on your breath. 

Most yoga is slow, and you learn to move through poses in time with your breath. This helps you pay attention to your breath and be intentional with deepening and slowing your breathing, which is part of mindfulness practice. Breathing is something you do without thinking most of the time. 

When you are struggling with a mood disorder that causes depression and anxiety your body can have negative reactions that can restrict or speed up your breath. Breathing in a reactionary state like this makes you feel helpless and compounds the feelings of stress and panic. 

As I have practiced yoga over the past few years I have noticed how restricted my chest feels when I try to take full breaths. Over the years of having bipolar disorder my normal state was often anxious and stressed, so my chest was used to being tight and restricted. I frequently felt like I couldn’t get a full breath of air.

Photo by Oluremi Adebayo from Pexels

Yoga has taught me to be mindful of my breathing and intentional about taking slow, full breaths of air that have helped to relax my chest and open my lungs. It has also helped me be more aware of when my chest does tighten up in reaction to something. I can then be mindful of what is happening to cause it and deliberate about choosing how I want to handle the trigger or situation.

Third, yoga helps you be mindful and compassionate with your body.

The slow, deliberate movements require you to focus on your body. When you have bipolar disorder you feel like things are happening to you. You often don’t feel like you have control over your mind, and that causes reactions in your body, which increases the feelings of helplessness. 

Yoga helps you to slow things down, and pay attention to how your body feels and take responsibility for the care of your mind and body. 

One of Adrienne’s mantras when you are practicing with her is “find what feels good.” This means pay attention to how your body feels while you are practicing and don’t force it to do things that hurt you. 

One of the great things about practicing in my home is that I don’t feel any outside pressure to do certain poses or stretch more than my body is able. Yoga teaches you to listen to and honor your body. While you want to challenge yourself, you don’t want to hurt yourself. Yoga can help you learn the difference.

Fourth, yoga helps you build confidence in a powerful way.

When you first start to practice yoga there can be a lot of challenges. You are learning how to breathe correctly (sounds silly, but it is true) and discovering inflexibility and weakness in your body.  There are also challenges with balance, even in mountain pose–standing straight up–that can feel discouraging. 

Photo by Kamaji Ogino from Pexels

But steady, consistent, persistent practice will slowly help you improve in all of these areas. Anyone can do yoga. You can individualize your practice to meet your needs and you will look forward to the practice because of the calm, peace and confidence that are the benefits.

I really love that you can practice yoga anywhere and in any mental state. When you don’t have the energy, physical or emotional, to go on a walk or run, a yoga practice is a great substitute. There are many different kinds of practices you can do from physically challenging to restorative. I always feel better mentally and physically after I practice and I can feel that I have taken an important step on my path to mental wellness.

Bipolar Disorder: Why Walking and Running Are AWESOME for Self-care!

One important self-care tool for living well with bipolar disorder is regular exercise. One of the challenges I have found over the years, but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is the expense, inconvenience and limited access to facilities for working out. Our family has moved a lot (six times in eight years) and each time a new set of challenges presented themselves. 

Some places were a long distance from a work-out facility or pool, some places the fees were prohibitive, and it always involved extra time to get to the facility, and figuring out child care while I was working out.

All of this was compounded by the challenges I was having when I was in a depression. I was already struggling with limited emotional resources for motivating myself to do something, and all of these obstacles made it harder to stay consistent and easier to give up.

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

The two forms of exercise that I have come back to over and over the past two decades as a mother that were most effective, convenient, and physically and mentally beneficial were walking and running outside. Really, I could simply say that all you need is a good, supportive pair of shoes and you can walk or run anywhere, with children in tow. But I will tell you more about why these really are the most ideal forms of exercise for mothers with bipolar disorder.

First, running and walking are very convenient forms of exercise.

There are a lot of different forms of exercise, many of which require memberships, equipment, facilities, babysitters, etc. Walking and running are simple and accessible, and the only investment is a good pair of shoes. I have taken my babies and toddlers on walks and jogs with me in the stroller. 

When my children were a little older I would take them to the track where they played in the grass while I ran laps around them. Sometimes they would even run with me. Now, I get up in the early hours before my husband leaves so that I can make sure I get my run in before the day starts. It is so convenient because all it involves is getting dressed and stepping outside to go run. I don’t have to drive anywhere or make arrangements for my children. 

Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

It is also possible to run or walk wherever you are, so you can maintain your exercise routine even if you are out of town. They really are the most convenient forms of exercise I have ever done (with the possible exception of yoga, which I talk about in Bipolar Disorder: Yoga for Your Mind and Body).

Second, they are both very efficient forms of exercise for your entire body.

Both walking and running are great cardiovascular workouts that help strengthen your heart and produce endorphins that help reduce stress and elevate your mood in a short amount of time. When you have children there are a lot of demands on your time. Finding an efficient way to exercise is important so that you can do it consistently. 

In the past when I have tried to do other types of exercise–swimming, group classes, etc.–I have always had something come up that would get in the way eventually, especially during the pandemic when everything was shut down. I wasn’t just doing the exercise, I was having to spend extra time going to the facility for the class or to swim. I spent at least two to three times as much time as I do when I run or walk.

Third, there are physical and psychological benefits to running or walking outside.

When you run or walk outside you get the benefits of sunshine, fresh air, change in scenery and even social contact. An article by Advanced Neurotherapy identifies four key benefits to exercising outside: 1) increased oxygen levels from being in fresh air helps improve brain function; 2) spending time outdoors in natural scenery has been proven to improve concentration; 3) increased vitamin D from sunshine improves healthy brain function; and 4) exercising outside helps to reduce stress. 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Being in the fresh air is good for your body and your mind! Living in the Midwest I even learned I could run in really cold weather, just layer up! 

There are additional benefits to your brain if you don’t wear headphones when you run that are similar to mindfulness meditation. Years ago when I started walking and running outside I didn’t wear headphones for safety reasons since I usually walked or ran alone. 

As I have walked and run without earbuds outside over the years I have really been amazed at how incredible the benefits are to my mind. Mindfulness meditation (see my post on Mindfulness) is about learning how to be present in your mind and in the moment you are in at the time. When I am walking and running I love to be aware of how my body is feeling, what my brain is thinking, and I frequently have inspiration come to mind about challenges that I am dealing with at that time.

The change of scenery has interesting psychological benefits. First, when you are running outside you can see how far you have come and there is a feeling of accomplishment. You feel like you are getting somewhere. There are changes in elevation or terrain that keep your brain active and engaged. 

There are also the benefits of seeing different scenery to your mind. Whether you are in the city, suburbs or country, there is always something to interest your brain. When we lived in a small town I had a favorite run that would take me past a field where cows grazed. When I ran in the city I found the buildings and people interesting to look at, which brings up another benefit to running outside–people.

Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels

I love the semi-social nature of running outside. When you pass someone else you can wave or smile at them which gives you a sense of community and the act of smiling can help you feel better emotionally. I have had times, too, when I have been part of a running club or walked with friends, and that social connection has improved my emotional wellbeing. 

As moms we have built-in sources of stress and demands on our time and energy that test us on a daily basis. When you combine this with a mood disorder like bipolar disorder it can feel like a losing battle. But when you have a simple, convenient, efficient form of exercise as part of your self-care routine that can help your physical and emotional health, you can develop a habit that will be another step on your path to living well and healthy with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar Disorder: The Benefits of Exercise

One of the things that I have learned in my journey to wellness with bipolar disorder is just how much our physical, mental and emotional health are interrelated. When one is suffering or unwell it impacts all of the other areas. Likewise, improving your health in one area can positively impact the other areas, too. 

I found this especially true with my physical health. When my body was not well, either out of shape or sick, it had a noticeable negative impact on my mental and emotional well-being. For this reason, I have learned how important it is to take care of myself physically and why exercise is such an important self-care tool for maintaining mental and emotional health.

My Early Experiences with Exercise and my Bipolar Disorder

In high school and college I was a competitive swimmer. After my diagnosis in 1998 I frequently would talk with my doctors about how I noticed that when I was a competitive swimmer, during those teenage and young adult years, my symptoms seemed to be much more mild and manageable. One doctor suggested that the training and competition might have kept me in a perpetual hypomanic state, which helped to stave off major depressive episodes. This made sense as I looked back on that time and the patterns in my life. 

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I tried to find ways to recreate that over the years. I felt like this was an important element to being well, but as I got into a career and then married and began having children I was unable to train enough to recreate that same physical intensity that proved so beneficial during my younger years. I also struggled to make myself exercise at all when I was depressed. As my illness got worse, exercise started to become counterproductive, draining finite emotional and mental resources and compounding my depression.

Once I finally found the supplements that helped balance the chemicals in my brain (see Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work) I started the process of learning the place of exercise on my path to healing. The right kind of exercise in the right way really is key to maintaining optimal mental and emotional health.

The Downside to Training for Triathlons

When I first started to exercise after I got on my supplements I went back to what I knew, training for competition. I decided to sign up and train for my first triathlon. I knew how to train, I had developed a lot of physical and mental self-discipline related to training when I was a competitive swimmer. 

So I bought books and watched videos on training for triathlons and went to work. I loved the familiar feeling of physical exertion that gave me an endorphin boost, and a sense of accomplishment. And when I participated in my first triathlon I was reminded of how much I loved to compete. It was thrilling!

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Unfortunately, when it was over I got depressed, and I didn’t understand why. I tried to make myself exercise, but the effort was mentally exhausting and drained me. Instead of filling my emotional reservoir, it was draining it. I concluded that I didn’t like exercising for the sake of exercising, and that I needed to have a competitive goal to work towards in order for it to be beneficial to my mental state. 

The problem this created was that I got into a pattern of training for events, which caused me to become hyper focused on the training, often at the expense of my family. It also created a hypomanic state while I was training, and this resulted in a crash and a depressive episode when the event was over. I didn’t know what to do. I could see that exercise had a positive impact on my mental health, but I couldn’t figure out how to access those benefits without hurting some other aspect of my mental or emotional health. 

Exercising in a Mindful Way

The first breakthrough occurred after I had started to practice meditation (see my post Bipolar Disorder: Why Mindfulness Meditation is Necessary). I was feeling really stressed one day and I was having a difficult time getting myself to go on my training run. I decided to run without my GPS tracking app and to just take it easy. It was such an enjoyable experience for me. 

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I experienced a lot of the same benefits I received from meditating and felt positive and rejuvenated when I was done. I started to see that taking a walk or run, without trying to push myself to achieve a certain time or goal, helped my mental state. I started to do that more frequently, just walking or running for the sake of the experience, and I really started to love it. 

I also learned how beneficial it is to not wear headphones or earbuds while exercising (see Bipolar Disorder: Walking and Running). Not listening to anything while you exercise keeps your brain from being distracted and allows you to focus on what is happening in the moment and reap the meditative benefits of the exercise and the outdoors.

Exercise for Health Rather Than Weight Loss

The next thing that helped me to really benefit emotionally from exercise was to focus on being healthy, rather than losing weight or getting slimmer. When I focused on something I didn’t like about myself–like my body or my weight–as a reason for exercising it created a negative experience with the entire process and made me feel more stressed. 

I found myself so focused on my weight and appearance that if I wasn’t losing weight or seeing any noticeable difference in my body I would get discouraged and depressed. It also created a lot of stress leading up to the exercise because my mind was negatively focused, and it created anxiety for me rather than relieving it. When dealing with bipolar disorder you already have so much negative self-talk in your mind, you don’t need to feed it by creating additional reasons to dislike yourself.

Choose to focus on exercise to become healthier, physically and mentally. As you focus on positive rather than negative motivations it will help you feel more excited about exercising and look forward to it, rather than dreading it.

Exercise for Stress Relief

I have also found that exercise is extremely beneficial to relieving stress and anxiety. When you focus on the exercise and your breathing, especially outdoors (I also discuss why this is beneficial in my post on Walking and Running) your mind is able to subconsciously sort through problems you are having and often come up with solutions you hadn’t considered. 

This will give your mind relief from the stressors and worries that sometimes overwhelm you and give your body a physical outlet for the physical symptoms of stress. You will be amazed at the insight and inspiration that can come when you exercise outside without headphones. You will also find you feel physically invigorated the rest of the day.

Exercise for Self-discipline and Self-confidence

Finally, I have found that when I am exercising consistently, I am more productive in my life overall. It takes consistent self-discipline to begin and maintain an exercise routine. Keep your exercise routine simple, accessible and a small time commitment (usually 30-40 minutes) so that it doesn’t require more than you can consistently give. 

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Following this pattern will make it much easier to follow through on your commitment to yourself and you will gain confidence in your ability to follow through and stay consistent. You will be able to apply that self-discipline to other areas of your life. Regular exercise will give you more energy, focus and confidence to meet the other commitments and priorities in your life.

My mindset about exercise really has changed. I am now focused on the mental, emotional and physical benefits it gives me. I have removed the stressors associated with it (training stress and body image stress) and I have found that exercise really is key to maintaining a healthy body and mind. Our bodies and minds are truly inseparable, and when you take care of your body (in a healthy and balanced way), it really does help you care for your mind.