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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
I didn’t start off having suicidal thoughts. It started with nightmares. Vivid, intense nightmares about dying and I would wake up feeling horrible inside. This went on for years until it progressed to daydreams about dying. I would have random images or scenarios pop into my head of things that could cause my death.
I knew intuitively that my mind was suffering with my bipolar disorder and it was trying to find a way out, but I didn’t realize the full implications of what I was experiencing. I didn't recognize the danger these thoughts posed to my safety.
When this first started I recoiled from the thoughts and images. I felt anxiety and fear when I would have them. But as the years went on and my disorder grew worse I started having thoughts like, “your husband would be so much happier if you were dead and he could find a better wife,” or “your children would be so much better off if they had a better mom who wasn’t sick.”
I didn’t tell anyone about the thoughts I was having because I was so embarrassed and ashamed of them. It made me feel crazy and I didn’t want anyone to know how broken I really was. So, I hid them and suffered alone.
Then in 2008 I had a breakdown. I was hospitalized three times in three different hospitals in two states. During that time I finally gave in to the thoughts that had been plaguing me and made two attempts on my life. I don’t remember much of what happened because during one of my hospitalizations the doctors performed a full course of twelve electroconvulsive therapy treatments and I lost most of my memory from those months.
It took years for my husband to talk to me about what happened because it had been so traumatic for him–he was the one to stop me both times.
When I was finally released from my third hospitalization I had an experience that changed everything. One sunny morning a few weeks later I was watching my children play. My daughter was 4 and my son was 2. I was looking at my daughter and had a very clear thought come into my mind, “if you ever succeed in ending your life it will ruin hers. Your daughter will believe it was her fault and she will spend the rest of her life blaming herself.” I was shocked! I had come to thoroughly believe the lies my mind had told me, that my children would be better off if I was gone.
As soon as I had the thought, I knew it was true, she would believe it was her fault and it would ruin her life. That day I made the commitment that I would survive for my children.
If that was the best I could do, I would do it.
I loved them more than my own life and I would do anything for them.
From that point on I decided that I would not let the thoughts of death or suicide stay in my mind unchallenged. I would ask for help if I was having those thoughts and not let myself feel shame or embarrassment anymore.
This was the first time in over a decade after my diagnosis that I truly, proactively, took responsibility for my mind. I thought I had before. I had diligently gone to psychiatric appointments and tried to take my medication, but I didn’t feel like I had any control over my mind. I felt for years like my bipolar disorder was in the driver’s seat and I was just along for the ride. But I now realized that I couldn’t let my bipolar be in charge anymore: it was trying to kill me and I wasn’t going to let it.
When you have bipolar disorder, it feels like there are so many things working against you. You have a disorder that really is all in your head. When you have those horrible, intrusive thoughts while you are floundering in the dark heaviness of depression, it is so easy to believe they are true because they correlate with what you are feeling.
I didn’t understand that I shouldn’t believe every thought that came into my mind. I didn’t know that it was possible to separate myself from my thoughts and challenge them.
With bipolar disorder it is embarrassing, discouraging, and yes, unfair, to keep making mistakes or poor decisions because of the mood cycles, especially mania, and then have to deal with the consequences for your decisions. Each time you give into impulses that are bad or make decisions based on irrational thoughts it’s humiliating to have to deal with the aftermath. This naturally results in feeling insecure and makes it easy to believe that everyone would be better off without you.
It can also feel like your life is not worth living because you spend so mucheffort just trying to manage your disorder and don’t feel like you have anything to offer beyond that.
The wonderful thing is that:
you can learn to separate yourself from your thoughts, decide which ones to believe and dismiss the bad ones,
you can learn to manage your disorder so that you don’t keep making the same mistakes and poor decisions, and;
you absolutely have so much to offer because you have infinite value and purpose well beyond your disorder.
It is possible to learn to manage your bipolar well and live a healthy, balanced, productive life.
The first step is to create a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). An ERP will help you to take responsibility for your mood cycles so that you lessen the impact on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycle. One very important piece of your plan will be your Emergency Response Team.
If you are having thoughts of self-harm or death decide who you will talk to or what you will do when you have those thoughts. This was a really important piece for me. It was important to have someone to talk to when I was having intrusive, negative thoughts because there were times when it was too much for me to manage on my own.
Think of those thoughts like having an intruder in your home that wants to harm you. If that happened you would call for help, you wouldn’t allow that threat to remain unchallenged. Do not allow those thoughts to stay in your mind. Identify them and challenge them. This is something that is especially important to discuss with your therapist. Create a plan ahead of time so that you will know what to do when it happens.
Second, you need to develop a self-care plan that helps you begin to effectively treat your bipolar disorder. There are several important tools that will help.
Proactively seeking treatment with a good therapist
Learning to practice mindfulness meditation–this is an especially important tool for identifying and challenging intrusive thoughts
Additional self-care tools like yoga, exercise and simplifying your life.
If you would like additional guidance on how to effectively manage your bipolar disorder you can join the monthly membership program that guides you through the steps & tools necessary to manage your bipolar disorder well. For more information click here.
Finally, seek support from others who understand what you’re going through. Having bipolar disorder can be very lonely and isolating. It is hard to not feel broken and flawed. Seeking positive, encouraging support from others who are struggling with the same disorder will lighten your load and lift you up. You’ll gain strength to live well while managing your disorder. For moms with bipolar disorder you can join my free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself or thoughts of dying, please reach out for help. Life with bipolar disorder can feel hard and overwhelming. Your mind might tell you that everyone would be better off if you weren’t here, BUT THAT IS A LIE! Challenge those thoughts. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM!
You are irreplaceable. You can manage your bipolar disorder well and live a healthy, balanced, productive life.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the other things that learning about this recovery cycle has taught me is that I am responsible for myself and for treating my 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I do not receive any compensation for the link in this post to take 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 passage, “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.
With Bipolar Disorder it is nearly impossible to discipline your brain. When you’re in a manic or depressed state your mind is bombarded by a tsunami of intrusive thoughts and overwhelming emotions that all feel very real. This, coupled with the exhilaration of mania or the exhaustion of depression make attempts to take control of what is going on in your own mind feel useless and futile. As long as my illness was in control of my brain I felt like I was in bondage to Bipolar Disorder, and I felt hopeless.
The first glimmer of hope was when I finally found the supplements that I take that balance out the chemicals in my brain (see my post Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work). That made it possible to create the space, because the chemicals were finally in balance. The next step was getting into counseling to get help identifying unhealthy thought patterns and habits that I needed to change (see my post Bipolar Disorder: Why Counseling is Essential).
Now I needed to learn how to create that space between stimulus and response so that I could choose for myself how I wanted to think, act, and live. This is where I learned the value of mindfulness meditation in taking responsibility for my life.
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 Masters 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 cds 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 practices 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 long and way more information that I wanted or needed.
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.
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” of experience 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 this–without you realizing it–to tell you how you should feel, think and act in response.
When you live with Bipolar Disorder this scenario is amplified because you have ceded control of your mind already. It doesn’t even occur to you that this process takes place, let alone that you could change it. You have learned to believe that you are a victim and that your mind has a mind of it’s own–you’re just along for the ride.
This is a terrible way to live, and I have learned that it is not necessary. You can take responsibility for your thought processes, and mindfulness meditation teaches you how your mind works and how to change it effectively so that you can regain ownership of your mind.
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 mind and help you exercise your mental muscles. The book is so simply written and straight forward.
Each week you read a chapter that teaches you a new principle and then there are guided meditation practices to teach your mind that principle. Just as with exercise, consistency is the key. And you have to make it a priority, which means making the time in your day to do the mediation 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.
I have experienced tremendous benefits in my life as I have consistently practiced mindfulness meditation. I am more consciously aware of the thoughts I have entering my brain, and instead of letting them run away from me and take over, I decide what I want to do with those thoughts. I am so much more effective and efficient with my time and more focused in my mind. I have more time for the things that really matter to me.
Best of all I have much healthier emotional responses to things. Because I don’t let my mind run away from me, I decide what I want to do with thoughts that used to get me worked up emotionally. It really is wonderful to not feel like a victim to an out of control mind anymore.
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 stressful 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 Covey said, “Between stimulus and response is our greatest power–the freedom to choose.” Mindfulness teaches you how to create that space between stimulus and response so that you can have that freedom to choose. It is the next essential step on the path to wellness.