Healing Bipolar Part Three: Why Mindfulness Meditation is Necessary

I do not receive any compensation for the link in this post that takes you to the book I recommend. It is there simply for your convenience.

Years ago I was reading the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey in yet another attempt to fix myself with a self-help book. As I was reading one day I came across this quote from Victor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response is our greatest power–the freedom to choose.” As I read that statement, I knew that was the key, I needed to work on making space between the stimulus and the response so I could choose how to act. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t create that space. 

When I experienced bipolar symptoms of mania or depression if felt nearly impossible to discipline my brain. My mind was bombarded by a tsunami of intrusive thoughts and overwhelming emotions that made attempts to take control of what was going on in my mind feel useless and futile. I felt like I was in bondage to my bipolar symptoms, and I felt hopeless.

The first glimmer of hope was when I finally found the micronutrients that enabled me to get off medication and help my brain begin to heal (see my post Why Do You “Push” Micronutrients). That made it possible to create the space because my brain was starting to function in a healthy, balanced way. That was when I learned the value of mindfulness meditation in taking responsibility for my life.

by Pixabay

My Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation

The first exposure I had to the practice of mindfulness was around 2006 when one of my sisters was getting her master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She recommended a guided meditation CD by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I bought the cd, listened to it for a few minutes, and thought, “what kind of hippy, dippy stuff is this?” I put the CD back in its case and didn’t look at it again for several years. 

In 2013, when I was pregnant with my third baby, a friend of mine recommended that I try hypnobirthing. I really wanted to have a natural birth and I was very open to her recommendation. Hypnobirthing is a form of mindfulness practice, and the birth was such an amazing experience that I wanted to have another baby just so I could do it again (my husband said no, we’re done).

In 2014 my mom told me that she and my stepfather had started practicing mindfulness meditation to help with some health issues. They were using the same guided meditation CD’s that my sister had recommended. Because of my experience with hypnobirthing I was more open to it. This time I bought Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living to try to understand the science behind the practice. 

I only made it through two chapters of the book and three weeks of sporadic practice before I gave it up. The guided meditations were so long that even though I could see the benefits of the practice, I was really having a hard time consistently finding 45 minutes a day to dedicate to it. The book was also difficult for me to read because it was 499 pages longway more information than I wanted or needed.

A Simple Program That Works

Then in 2016 a childhood friend of mine posted on Facebook about his struggle with anxiety and depression and how much mindfulness meditation had helped him. He referenced a book I hadn’t heard of Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, both of whom had studied or worked with Jon Kabat-Zinn. I got the book and decided to try again. This book was so easy to read and understand and the practices were shorter. 

I had a few false starts with this program. I struggled with consistency and prioritizing the time for practice. Little by little, though, I was starting to learn the tremendous value of mindfulness meditation. As I began to read and practice consistently I finally started to see why this was so essential to my healing. 

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

Why You Need Mindfulness

Often when you have a thought or experience, your mind tries to decide how to engage with it by going through its “files” and pulling up every possible scenario in the past it thinks is related, and every possible outcome that could result from the present situation. It does all of thiswithout you realizing itto tell you how you should feel, think and act in response. 

When you are living with bipolar symptoms, this scenario is amplified because you feel like your symptoms are outside your control and your mind has a mind of its ownyou’re just along for the ride. Mindfulness meditation puts you back in the driver’s seat.

Learning to Exercise Your Mental Muscles

This process takes time, like beginning an exercise program when you are totally out of shape. The way this program is set up reminds me of a couch to 5k running program. It is designed to slowly retrain your brain and exercise your mental muscles. 

Each week you read a chapter that teaches you a new principle and then use guided meditation practices to practice that principle. Just as with exercise, consistency is the keyyou need to make it a prioritywhich means making the time in your day to do the meditation practices for that week. The amazing thing is that the small amount of time that you dedicate to the practice doesn’t feel like a sacrifice once you start to experience the benefits. 

Grounding

Some of the symptoms of bipolar–depression and anxiety–are sometimes caused or exacerbated by you mind dragging you into the past or future or an inability to cope with intense or uncomfortable emotions. Mindfulness meditation helps you learn how to ground yourself in the present often dissipating those symptoms or emotions.

Interrupting the “Feed-back Loop”:

When you get “triggered” by something your body has a physical response–tense muscles, tight chest, difficulty breathing, numbness–which then in turn signals distress to the brain. This creates a feedback loop that can spin out of control. Mindfulness interrupts that feedback loop and enables you to engage your rational mind to make a decision about how to respond, rather than react.

You Are Not Your Thoughts

When your mind is having negative, intrusive thought it can make you feel like a horrible person. I used to say to myself “normal people don’t have thoughts like that, I must be a bad person.” Mindfulness helps you step back and observe your thoughts without judgement and then decide if you want to engage with the thought or let it go.

Becoming More Effective and Proactive in Therapy

Mindfulness is especially beneficial in helping you to become more self-aware and productive in therapy. You become aware of negative thought patterns and even manage distress when doing trauma processing.

Healthier Emotional Responses

Mindfulness helps you develop healthier emotional responses. You decide how you will respond, rather than just reacting. It really is wonderful to not feel like a victim to an out-of-control mind anymore. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Meditation Practice, the Key to a Balanced, Healthy Day

My meditation time is an essential part of the beginning of my day now, helping me to remind my brain who’s in charge. It is also the way I calm my mind at the end of the day so I can have a restful night’s sleep. I have also learned how to use my breathing to recenter myself when I am in a difficult situation so that I am able to handle stress in a healthy way.

I heard a saying once that I now understand in the context of mindfulness, 

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” -Lao Tzu

Mindfulness teaches you how to live in the present so that you don’t get swept up in the current of your thoughts and lose control of your mind and your emotions.  As Victor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response is our greatest power–the freedom to choose.” Mindfulness teaches you how to create that space so you can have that freedom to choose. It is the next essential step on the path to wellness. 

To Learn More Check Out: 

 

Am I a Liar?

This morning my social media feed was filled with bipolar content creators saying things like:

“If someone tells you they healed their bipolar they are a liar,”

or

“You can’t cure bipolar disorder and anyone who says you can is dangerous.”

I was so sad when I saw these videos because I remember believing this once, too! But it isn’t true! 

I was diagnosed and treated for bipolar for over a decade with traditional treatment (psychiatric drugs) and I got progressively worse until I was hospitalized multiple times and made several attempts on my life. I became convinced that the best I could expect out of life was learning how to suffer well with my bipolar.

Mercifully I discovered a research-based, integrated treatment plan that helped me heal and I don’t experience any symptoms anymore—ever.

So why do people believe bipolar is chronic and incurable so strongly that they call me a liar for saying you can heal? What provides their “evidence”?

What is the evidence?

A Paradox

We have been told a story about bipolar disorder for decades that has convinced most people that you have a chemical imbalance in your brain. You’re told that similar to diabetics who need insulin, you need psychotropic drugs to treat your “chemical imbalance.”

That is simply NOT TRUE. The “chemical imbalance” theory of bipolar was disproved decades ago. Even worse, it was discovered that the drugs used to “treat” bipolar create a chemical imbalance in the brain!

If you try to discontinue drug use, you experience terrible withdrawal symptoms and frequently the bipolar symptoms become dramatically worse! The withdrawals and worsening symptoms are then blamed on your “disorder” and you are convinced that you really do need medication to survive.

Bipolar symptoms are not a chemical imbalance, and they aren’t even a “disorder”. They are your brain’s way of asking for help! Instead of trying to “shut up” the symptoms with drugs you need to figure out what it is trying to say so you can help it heal!

The Truth

The truth is there is a rapidly growing mountain of research that is actually identifying the root causes of bipolar symptoms. This research also prescribes effective treatments that resolve the symptoms at the source, which leads to healing!

YES! You can heal bipolar disorder if you use a research-based, integrated treatment plan that addresses the source of your symptoms enabling you to heal and recover!

To learn more, check out the three-part series The Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar:

WARNING: If you decide to switch from medication to micronutrients DO NOT go off of medication “cold turkey”, or stopping all at once. Medication alters your brain chemistry and withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous, even life-threatening. DO work closely with someone specifically trained in cross-titration—either Truehope customer support or a trusted psychiatrist who has been specifically trained in cross-titration—to safely withdraw from the drugs and transition to the micronutrients that will help heal your brain.

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!

Bipolar Disorder: The Journey to Wellness

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day. She asked me what I would say to someone about how to live well with bipolar disorder? As I began to answer I realized that my answer would be slightly different depending on where they were on the journey to wellness with bipolar. 

In the first decade after my diagnosis with bipolar disorder I developed the false belief that the ultimate goal with bipolar disorder was to learn how to suffer well with it. I diligently took all the medications that were prescribed to me and went to counseling, but nothing was working. I felt alone and isolated because no one understood what was going on with me, least of all me. I didn’t understand what was happening in my mind and I began to feel hopeless.

I thought I was doing my best, and in some ways I was, but I was suffering, and so were my husband and children. I usually felt out of control with mania or hopelessly depressed. I would go through periods of angry belligerence when I felt it was unfair that I had to suffer this way, so everyone else would have to just learn to deal with it, too.

It can be really difficult to learn how to take responsibility for yourself with bipolar disorder when you don’t understand what that looks like, or how to do it. Having a disorder that is “all in your head” can be challenging to treat because the symptoms of your disorder feel normal to you, even though they are unhealthy and often self-destructive. 

Accepting Your Diagnosis

Accepting responsibility for yourself and being proactive in learning to live well with bipolar disorder require you to first accept that you have bipolar disorder and that there currently is no cure for it. This is not something to become discouraged about. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes and yet people live well with it all the time. They learn the tools necessary to manage their disorder. It is the same for living with bipolar disorder. 

You can learn how to manage your bipolar effectively so that you are able to live a healthy, balanced, productive life. But you have to be willing to:

  1. accept that you have the disorder, and 
  2. accept that you are responsible for learning and applying the tools to manage it.

Mindset Shift

Accepting that you have bipolar disorder and that you have a responsibility for managing it effectively requires a mindset shift.

Process Your Grief

First, you need to allow yourself to grieve. “When you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder you suffer a loss. You lose who you thought you were. You might feel angry, discouraged, alone, hopeless, lost, and all of these feelings are part of the grieving process. It is important to recognize this process and acknowledge the feelings that you are having as valid.”

“It is also equally important to work through this process, ideally with a mental health counselor, so that you don’t get bogged down and lost in it. It is normal to mourn the loss of who you were, or who you thought you were, but you need to look forward and embrace who you are and who you can become.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief)

Stop Comparing 

Second, you need to not compare yourself and your life to others who don’t have bipolar disorder. “You cannot stop having bipolar disorder, [and]  comparing yourself to who you were in the past, or who you think you should be will prevent you from progressing to wellness and becoming the best version of yourself.” 

“It is especially damaging, when you have bipolar disorder, to compare yourself to others because it creates a stumbling block to becoming well. Your mind is already prone to negative self-talk. Comparing yourself to others who don’t have bipolar disorder is like pouring gasoline on the fire.” 

“When you are focused on the gap between where you are and who you think others are, it causes discouragement, depression and despair. You begin to define yourself by what you lack and by your bipolar disorder, instead of your unique qualities and gifts that make you special.” (Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!)

The Path to Wellness is Not Linear

Third, it is critical to understand what learning to live well with bipolar disorder looks like. I used to think that it was like trying to climb a mountain and when I got to the top I would be better.  

“That analogy is counterproductive at best, and damaging at worst. The idea of climbing a mountain is a linear path, which means that if you get manic or depressed while you are working to learn to live well, you get knocked back down to the bottom. It reminds me of the game Chutes and Ladders where if you are unlucky enough to land on the wrong square you slide backwards on the board, sometimes to the very beginning.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle)

Learning to live well with bipolar disorder follows the same pattern as the addiction recovery cycle. “Understanding the stages of the recovery cycle will help you better understand your disorder and have a healthier outlook on your personal responsibility for self-care. 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.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle)

Taking Responsibility

Once you accept your diagnosis and your responsibility to learn to manage it you have taken your first step on the path to wellness. The next step is to develop a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan for yourself. This plan helps you accept responsibility for your mood cycles and create a plan to manage them more effectively to minimize the impact on you and your loved ones and shorten the duration of the cycle. To get your free guide to create your Response Plan click here.

You then need to work to learn and apply the tools necessary to live a healthy, balanced, productive life. 

Support on Your Journey

Learning and applying the tools necessary to live well with bipolar is a process that requires patient, persistent effort. Make sure you surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you in this journey. 

“While you are working through this process it is so important to have encouraging support. You need professional support–psychiatrist and/or a good therapist. If you are married or in a serious relationship you need the support and encouragement of your partner. And you need support from others who know what you are going through.”

“I started a Facebook Group to provide positive, encouraging support for moms trying to learn to live well with bipolar disorder. Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well is a group of women who are ready to take responsibility for themselves and who are willing to do the work to learn how to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. If you are ready and willing, join us!” (Bipolar Disorder: The Rollercoaster)

Where are you on the journey?

Determine where you are on the journey to living well with bipolar disorder. Do you still need to work on your mindset? If so, start with the posts on mindset.

  1. Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!
  2. Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief
  3. Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle

Have you accepted your diagnosis and you are ready to take responsibility and learn to proactively manage your bipolar? Then get your free guide to create your Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

It is possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help!

Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!

Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!

There is a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When it comes to learning to live well with bipolar disorder, comparison can be the thief of wellness, too. This has become clearer to me over the years as I have worked to learn the keys to living well with this disorder. 

One day I had an epiphany, if a person who became a paraplegic in an accident spent her life comparing herself to an elite runner, she would become depressed, discouraged, and give up. Instead of focusing on what she could do, she would be focused on what she couldn’t do. Was I doing the same thing? Was I comparing myself and my life to people who didn’t have the same mental health challenges I have? Was I dwelling on what I couldn’t do, rather than recognizing what I could?

Cambry Kaylor’s Story

As I thought about this, I decided to look up athletes who had become paralyzed and I came across Cambry Kaylor. She was an equestrian vaulter (acrobat on horseback) and was in a training accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. I listened to her share her story and was struck by how similar her feelings were when she learned of her paralysis to the feelings I had when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

She said, “I wanted my paralysis to be something I could wake up from” and “I’m not Cambry Kaylor, I’m a crippled version of what I used to be. Who’s gonna want to be my friend or even date me?” She wanted her old life back. She spoke about how hard she tried to learn to walk and how lost she felt when she didn’t feel like she knew who she was anymore. 

I could identify with everything she was sharing. She struggled to accept herself for who she was. When she stopped trying to be who she was before and focused on being the best version of who she is now, she eventually was able to not just survive, but thrive in her new life. She is married now with a beautiful baby boy, she is a registered occupational therapist and teaches equestrian riding lessons. One of the most important pieces to her success was to focus on what she was capable of doing, not what she couldn’t do. 

Something she said that resonated the most with me was her answer to the question, “What if you could go back to that day and change it so that you never got paralyzed, would you do it?” Her response was, “Living with paralysis has taught me so much that I wouldn’t change that day.”  She said that now, when she is faced with challenges, she can look back at where she’s come from and have hope because of what she has overcome and accomplished in her life since her accident.

Comparison with Yourself

For those of us struggling with bipolar disorder there are some powerful lessons in Cambry’s experience. First, dwelling on who you used to be, or who you thought you should become, is counterproductive and harmful. You cannot stop having bipolar disorder any more than Cambry could stop being paralyzed. Comparing yourself to who you were in the past, or who you think you should be will prevent you from progressing to wellness and becoming the best version of yourself. 

When you are first diagnosed you go through a mourning period. It is similar to suffering a loss, the loss of who you thought you were. There is also the loss of who you thought you should become. Many of us have ideas of what our life should be like. Some of it is our own personal expectations. When we are young we naturally dream of what our life will be like some day. Those expectations are developed through goals, what we see in our family or the families of those around us, or even what we view in the media or are taught in church and school.

You will likely go through the stages of grief (see my post Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief). If you get stuck dwelling on who you used to be or who you thought you should become you can get stuck in the grief cycle and it will keep you from moving forward. 

Comparison with Others

Second, comparing yourself to others is equally damaging. Cambry felt like she needed to be able to walk like other people in order to be worthy of friends and relationships. As women and mothers we have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to each other. Social media has made the accessibility of comparison significantly easier. You can sit in the comfort of your own home and scroll through other mothers’ highlight reels, while you validate every negative feeling you have about yourself. 

It is especially damaging, when you have bipolar disorder, to compare yourself to others because it creates a stumbling block to becoming well. Your mind is already prone to negative self-talk. Comparing yourself to others who don’t have bipolar disorder is like pouring gasoline on the fire. When you are focused on the gap between where you are and who you think others are, it causes discouragement, depression and frustration. You begin to define yourself by what you lack and by your bipolar disorder, instead of the unique qualities and gifts that make you special.

Photo by George Milton from Pexels

Learning to Like Yourself as You Are

Finally, Cambry recognized that she wouldn’t want to go back and change what happened to her because of all that she has accomplished and learned from her accident. You can also come to a point where you are grateful for your bipolar disorder. I know this seems impossible, but it’s true. 

Years ago I was speaking to a friend of my mother who also lived with bipolar disorder. During the conversation while I was crying to her about how hard my life was with this disorder, she told me that one day I would be grateful for it. I was completely incredulous. I told her I didn’t believe that I would ever be grateful for bipolar disorder, how could I? But she insisted that I would. 

Today, I can confidently say that I am grateful for my bipolar, and I wouldn’t change myself or remove my disorder even if I could. 

I have learned so many things–compassion, perseverance, humility, gratitude–and I am not sure I would have learned these things with this depth of understanding without the challenge and blessing of having bipolar disorder. 

Having bipolar disorder can be a gift if you are willing to do the work to learn to manage it effectively. One of the first steps to learning to live well with bipolar is to stop comparing yourself and start appreciating yourself for who you are.

Tips to Help You Stop Comparing and Start Liking Yourself

To live well with bipolar disorder you need to learn how to:

  • not compare yourself to who you were or thought you should be,
  • not compare yourself to others who don’t have bipolar disorder, and
  • learn to love and appreciate who you are with bipolar disorder.

First, I have gone long periods of time without looking at social media–removing it from my phone and even closing my accounts at one point. When I am depressed I am especially vulnerable. 

Just like someone who is immune-compromised needs to keep herself protected from germs that would make her sick and weaken her body’s defenses, when you are emotionally vulnerable you need to steer clear of social media that attacks your emotional defenses and can compromise your “emotional immune system.” You may need to limit or even eliminate social media consumption while you are working to learn how to live well with bipolar.

Second, work with your counselor or therapist (see post about counseling) to learn how to identify unhealthy expectations that limit your progress and cause you to feel discouraged and depressed.

Third, learn to identify and focus on your strengths, characteristics and talents that make you uniquely valuable. You can do this through work with your therapist, speaking with trusted loved ones or friends or journaling to identify areas of strength or interest that you. 

Fourth, find positive, encouraging support from others who have bipolar disorder. Not all bipolar support is positive. There are many people who are struggling with having bipolar and focus on the negative aspects of their disorder. Seek support from those who are working to accept their disorder and learn to live well with it. One positive option is Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

Finally, practice mindfulness meditation (see post on mindfulness) that will help you to be aware of negative thought patterns that keep you focused on comparison and the gaps that comparison creates. As you identify the negative thought patterns you can work with your therapist to replace them with alternative thoughts that are positive.

It is possible to live a healthy, balanced and productive life with bipolar disorder. One very important key to making progress on the path to wellness is learning how to not compare yourself with anyone else.

Ready to Start?

If you are ready to take responsibility for yourself, to learn to accept and love yourself as you are and work towards living well with bipolar disorder, I invite you to start with my free download

It is a guide to developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan for when your emotional power goes out. In the guide I will take you through the Four Steps of formulating a response plan for mental health emergencies so that you are prepared when they hit. It will help you take more responsibility for yourself, minimize the impact on those you love and help you learn how to reboot your system to get your emotional power back online.

There is hope and help. Are you ready to start?,

Step 2

The Stages of Grief

Reconstruction and Working Through

Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief

Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief

What do you remember from the day you were diagnosed? What were the thoughts and feelings that went through your mind? How many times have you questioned your diagnosis? How many times have you felt angry or resentful of your disorder? Have you had times when you just gave up?

I had a realization one day as I was thinking about all of these things. When you are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder you suffer a loss. You lose who you thought you were. You might feel angry, discouraged, alone, hopeless, lost, and all of these feelings are part of the grieving process. It is important to recognize this process and acknowledge the feelings that you are having as valid. 

It is also equally important to work through this process, ideally with a mental health counselor, so that you don’t get bogged down and lost in it. It is normal to mourn the loss of who you were, or who you thought you were, but you need to look forward and embrace who you are and who you can become.

The Stages of Grief

Shock and Denial

When you are first diagnosed there are a number of different emotions that you experience. You are experiencing a fundamental shift in your life and it can be jarring. 

When I was first diagnosed I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. First, I felt relieved that there was finally an answer to the dramatic mood swings and the irrational thoughts and behaviors. Then I felt like I had been told I was broken, fundamentally flawed and defective. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was experiencing a loss–the loss of who I thought I was–and it was a shock. 

Over the years I have had many times when I was in serious denial about my diagnosis. I would go through brief periods, usually at the beginning of mania, or when a medication would offer some temporary relief, when I would start to feel good. I was clear minded and productive, and I would think, “There is nothing wrong with me, I’m not broken. I don’t have Bipolar Disorder.” 

Denial is a very common challenge with those diagnosed with Bipolar because you don’t want to believe that the “old you” is no more, and that this new version is someone you don’t like. 

Anger and Bargaining

When the inevitable followed and I crashed, I would often feel intense anger. Anger is a very common feeling when you are struggling with Bipolar Disorder. I had so many times when I felt angry that I had to work so hard to be “normal” and that it wasn’t fair that everyone else had it so much easier. 

I felt rebellious about what I struggled with, and I would decide that if this was the way I was, then everyone else was just going to have to suffer too, because it was just too hard to keep trying. 

I also remember begging God to take away this disorder. I would read in the Bible about the woman with an issue of blood who touched the hem of the Savior and was healed. I thought, “Why can’t God heal me? I have faith, why can’t he make me whole?” I spent a lot of time dwelling on this, and it usually made me either angry or more depressed.

Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels

Depression

Obviously someone with Bipolar Disorder will struggle with depression. However, this type of depression is not caused by the disorder itself, but is caused by the discouragement and hopelessness you feel because of the disorder. 

I thought for many years that if I tried hard enough I could fix myself. So every time I would cycle and end up making irrational choices and ultimately crash into depression I would feel like there was no point to trying. My depression was magnified by my hopelessness in what I felt was a pointless effort to try to live well. 

I also felt very alone in my struggle. Even the people who loved me and tried to help made me feel lonely, because they didn’t understand what I was going through. Often their attempts to help would make me feel worse because I viewed myself as broken and their help seemed to confirm that for me. 

The Turn Upward

This is when you finally start to really accept that the “old you” is gone, but that doesn’t mean that the “new you” is broken or flawed. It is just a different you. I wrote a post Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken! where I discuss why comparing yourself to who you used to be can prevent you from moving forward. When you get to this stage of the grieving process, the turn upward, you are starting to recognize that there might be hope for a positive future with your new self. 

Reconstruction and Working Through

This is the stage where you really begin to accept responsibility for yourself. You recognize that living a positive, productive life is possible, but you are going to have to work for it. You are willing to work with your counselor, develop tools and make changes in your life so that you can become the best version of yourself.

Acceptance and Hope

There were two stages of acceptance for me. The first was when I resigned myself to this “new me” that I thought was just going to spend my life surviving. I had spent ten years actively trying to treat my disorder, and it just got progressively worse. I finally just decided that this was my life, and I would simply just have to survive it. It was a resigned acceptance.

The second stage of acceptance was when I finally started to find the tools and resources that helped me to finally make some progress in learning how to live well with my disorder (see my post on Medication). I was able to not just accept my new self, but embrace my new self. I finally had hope for a fulfilling, productive life with Bipolar Disorder. 

I have also learned to be grateful for my Bipolar Disorder. I have learned so much over the years since my diagnosis that I don’t think I would have learned otherwise. I love my life now. I am grateful for the challenges that I have been through with my disorder because I have so much more confidence in myself and my ability to persevere and triumph over challenges. 

Moving Past Grief

Understanding the stages of grief and learning that it is normal for you to go through these stages as you mourn the loss of your “old self” can be helpful on your journey to wellness. However, you don’t want to allow grief to take over your life and get mired down in the mourning process. 

If you are ready to take responsibility for yourself, to learn to accept and love yourself as you are and work towards living well with Bipolar Disorder, I invite you to start with my free guide to developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan  for when your emotional power goes out. In the guide I will take you through the Four Steps of formulating a response plan for mental health emergencies so that you are prepared when they hit. It will help you take more responsibility for yourself, minimize the impact on those you love and help you learn how to reboot your system to get your emotional power back online.

There is hope and help. Are you ready to start?

Step 3

The recovery cycle

The Path to Wellness is Not Linear

Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle

Once when I was struggling with a depressive episode I went to a counseling appointment and told my counselor how discouraged I was. I felt so frustrated that I was depressed, it felt like failure to me. It seemed like I had climbed a mountain, learning how to live well, and now I was all the way back down at the bottom. I was frustrated and angry because in my mind I thought I had to start all over again.

My counselor responded to me with one of the most profound insights that I had been given into the treatment of my disorder. She said that treating bipolar disorder follows the same pattern as the addiction recovery cycle. She showed me a diagram of the addiction recovery cycle and explained that becoming depressed isn’t failure, it is just a shift in where I was in the cycle. 

It is important to understand that these stages do not necessarily always occur in this order, and sometimes you can be in more than one stage at a time, and even regress to a previous stage. But understanding the stages and the basic progression is important to learning how to view your bipolar disorder in a healthy way. 

Understanding the stages of the recovery cycle will help you better understand your disorder and have a healthier outlook on your personal responsibility for selfcare. 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.

Stages in the Recovery Cycle

Precontemplation

In this stage you don’t recognize or acknowledge that you have a problem. This can occur before diagnosis, but often continues after diagnosis, too. Prior to my diagnosis I had a feeling for a few years that there was something wrong, but I didn’t really know what it was. I spent a lot of time feeling like my mood swings were my fault, a lack of self-discipline. 

After diagnosis there were many times when I went through periods where I questioned my diagnosis. Often at the beginning of a manic phase I would start to feel happy and productive and I would think things like, “maybe it really was all in my head, I don’t have bipolar disorder and I don’t need medication. I’m fine.”

In this stage you may also feel angry that you struggle with bipolar disorder and feel like you shouldn’t have to work so hard to feel well, so you aren’t going to try at all. You may feel hopeless, like there is nothing you can do about it anyway, so why try. You might feel like you should be able to take care of things on your own, you don’t need anyone’s help, you can take care of yourself. Or you may like the feeling of mania, and not want to lose that exhilaration, rush, creativity, etc. that you get when you are manic.

Contemplation

In this stage you recognize and acknowledge that you have a disorder that needs treatment. It is just the beginning of the process, though, you know you need assistance but may not be fully committed to the journey yet. This could last for a while because it can feel scary to seek a diagnosis or to admit that you need help. There is also fear that there may not be any relief for you. Because of negative stigmas associated with bipolar disorder, it takes a lot of courage to reach out for support.

Preparation

In this stage you are committed to changing and you are ready to get help. This looks like making an appointment with a doctor or a mental health counselor, or reading a book on mindfulness meditation. Each time you recognize the need for a new tool or step you enter this stage.

Action

This stage is when you take action, when you apply what you learned in the preparation stage. This is when you start to see and experience change. This stage can be challenging when you first enter it, because you are trying something new. It is really important to have support from others who will encourage you and cheer you on as you choose each day to keep trying.

Maintenance

You enter this stage when you have established habits and patterns that help you live a healthy, balanced, and productive life. One of the challenges I experienced in this stage the first few times I entered it was anticipating the next manic or depressive episode. I was so used to the cycle that steady consistency sometimes caused me to feel anxious. 

This is one of the reasons that it was so helpful to me to learn about this recovery cycle. I learned to stop dreading potential interruptions, and instead viewed it as an opportunity to learn and grow. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but with consistent, persistent effort you can get to a point where you go long periods of time, sometimes years, without any serious episodes of mania or depression. 

Relapse

This is just what it sounds like. It is a recurrence of the mania or depression that throws off the new routine. Your response to this will determine where you land in the recovery cycle. The more you learn about your disorder, the more you recognize that it is a disorder and not moral or personal failing that causes you to relapse, the sooner you can work your way through the stages of recovery back to maintenance. 

I have also found that the more times I make it to the maintenance stage the more faith I have in myself that I can get there again. I know the way back, and so I can pick myself up, dust myself off and keep moving forward. I never enter precontemplation anymore.

Personal Responsibility

Understanding the recovery cycle has taught me that I am responsible for myself and for treating my bipolar disorder. I acknowledge that I have bipolar disorder, and I accept that I will have it for the rest of my life. If I do not acknowledge and accept that, I risk hurting myself and those I love the most–my husband and children. 

Understanding this recovery cycle has helped me to view my disorder in a healthy way. Relapse is not failure, it is just a shift of where I am in the cycle. This understanding has been a significant step on my journey to living a healthy, balanced and productive life. 

The Path to Wellness is Not Linear

The analogy that I used earlier of climbing a mountain to represent my path to wellness is really not accurate. In fact, that analogy is counterproductive at best, and damaging at worst. The idea of climbing a mountain is a linear path, which means that if you get manic or depressed while you are working to learn to live well, you get knocked back down to the bottom. It reminds me of the game Chutes and Ladders where if you are unlucky enough to land on the wrong square you slide backwards on the board, sometimes to the very beginning. 

One of the greatest benefits of discovering the recovery cycle is understanding the nature of bipolar disorder better–in a more realistic and productive way. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, just like there is no cure for type 1 diabetes. It is a medical disorder in the body that you can learn to manage so that it minimizes the impact on your life. But it will never go away completely. The goal is to learn to proactively manage your disorder within the Preparation-Action-Maintenance-Relapse stages of the cycle. 

As you learn and practice using the resources and tools necessary to live a healthy, balanced, productive life, your transitions through the stages will be easier and the skills you develop will improve. As you implement the tools and gain experience with those skills you will gain confidence in yourself and your ability to recover when you experience a manic or depressive episode. You can also learn to spend greater periods of time in the maintenance stage of the cycle. 

If you are ready to begin your journey to mental and emotional wellness, I invite you to sign up for my free guide to creating a personal Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. This is a fantastic resource to help you manage your relapses in a way that will minimize the impact on you and those you love. It will also help you develop a plan to move out of relapse and back into wellness. There is hope and there is help. I hope you will join me on this journey to living well with bipolar disorder. 

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. 

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 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. 

Pixabay

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.