Podcast Interview: Master Your Mental with Paris Prynkiewicz

I had the opportunity recently to be interviewed by Paris Prynkiewicz on her podcast Master Your Mental. In the interview Paris asked me about:

  • my experience with bipolar disorder (my history and how things turned around for me),
  • what coping with mood cycles used to look like (unhealthy) versus what managing mood cycles proactively looks like now,
  • how and why I started helping moms with bipolar disorder and what my favorite experience so far has been with that, and
  • what is my number one most powerful tool that I use in my self-care.

I loved speaking with Paris about how I have learned to live well with bipolar. It was a really amazing conversation. Paris’s mission with her podcast, social media and book are to offer encouragement and hope to others with bipolar disorder and it was an honor to be on her show. Enjoy!

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!

Bipolar Disorder: 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 and 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 illness is to mental health 

what physical illness is to physical health.

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.

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 supplement specifically for people with bipolar disorder. After my doctor reviewed the studies that had been done on the supplements he worked with me to transition me to them and they worked! 

A few months after I transitioned to the supplements 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 balance out the chemicals in their brains. 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 myself, 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.

Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

An especially valuable tool for proactively managing your bipolar disorder is a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. This plan helps you take responsibility for managing your mood cycles more effectively, rather than reactively just suffering through them. 

In this plan you:

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

Developing this plan helps you proactively care for your mood cycles in a way that lessens their impact on you and your family and shortens the duration of the cycle. To get a free guide to creating your own Mental Health Emergency Response Plan click 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 tool box 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 cycles 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.

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 often 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 has helped me be mindful and compassionate with my 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: Walking and Running

One of the important elements to 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 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 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 so important to 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. 

Photo by Emily Rose from Pexels

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!

Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU from Pexels

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. 

Photo by Josh Willink from Pexels

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 don’t wear headphones or earbuds, (see Bipolar Disorder: Walking and Running). Not listening to anything while I exercise keeps my brain from being distracted and allows me 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.

I decided that the reason I was exercising was because it helps me to feel better physically and mentally. As I focused on positive motivations it helped me to get excited about my exercise so that I looked 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 for me. When I am focused on my exercise and breathing, and I am out in nature (I also discuss why this is beneficial in my post on Walking and Running) my mind is able to subconsciously sort through problems I am having and often come up with solutions I hadn’t considered. 

This gives my mind relief from the stressors and worries that sometimes overwhelm me and gives my body a physical outlet for the physical symptoms of stress. I am always amazed at the insight and inspiration that comes to me when I am exercising outside without headphones. And I physically feel so good 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. I have learned to keep my exercise routine simple, easy (accessible) and a small time commitment (usually 30-40 minutes) so that it doesn’t require more than I can consistently give. 

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When I do this it is much easier for me to follow through on my commitment to myself. Then, as I keep that commitment to myself I gain confidence in my ability to follow through and stay consistent. I am then able to apply that self-discipline to other areas of my life. The other thing that I find is that the benefits I derive from regular exercise give me more energy, focus and confidence to meet my other commitments and priorities in my 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.