The Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part Three: The Steps to Heal Your Disorder

Continued from Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part Two: What is Bipolar, Anyway?

NOTE: This post DOES NOT contain affiliate links. All links are provided for the convenience of the reader.

One of the misconceptions created by the “bipolar disorder” diagnosis is that everyone is suffering from the same illness. The reality is there are underlying causes that vary from person to person. 

Clearly, the treatment model being used does not treat the cause of bipolar but attempts to mitigate the symptoms. Additionally, as mentioned in part one of this series, the medication used to “treat” bipolar is causing a chemical imbalance in the brain that compounds the problem.

In order to heal bipolar, the underlying causes need to be assessed and treated using an integrated, research-based approach that helps the brain and body heal.

Step One: Mood Cycle Survival Guide

The first step in this process is to proactively manage the symptoms of bipolar using a Mood Cycle Survival Guide (MCSG). Over the first decade of living with bipolar symptoms, each time I experienced a mood swing—mania or depression—I felt helpless, like a victim getting yanked onto a rollercoaster and holding on for dear life until the ride was over. Those mood swings were often devastating to me and those I loved.

I finally learned, however, that it was possible to take back control with simple tools found in a MCSG. This helped l minimize the impact of the mood swings, on me and my family, and shorten their duration.

This is an essential first step because healing takes time; and having an MCSG in place at the beginning of the process will help you manage your symptoms more effectively and keep you moving towards healing.

Step Two: Specialized Micronutrients

The second step is to provide the brain the nutrients necessary to function in a healthy, balanced way. Our brains demand significantly higher levels of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) than the rest of our body. In The Better Brain, Drs. Bonnie Kaplan and Julia Rucklidge explain:

“…brain metabolism responsible for the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine is dependent on an ample supply of micronutrients…We now know that there are many people with underlying risk factors, often genetic, that may make them more vulnerable to emotional distress when their diet is poor.”

Drs. Kaplan and Rucklidge also share that in recent decades eating whole food diets is not always sufficient because:

  • the soil has become so depleted in nutrients, and 
  • there are people who have a genetic need for higher nutrient levels to support healthy brain function. 

That combination has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of people suffering from mental illnesses like bipolar. 

EMPowerPlus is a micronutrient treatment proven through numerous independent studies to be three times more effective than any medication on the market because it actually addresses common underlying causes of the bipolar symptoms.

Switching from medication to micronutrients requires a process called cross-titration where you very gradually reduce the psychotropic drugs and simultaneously increase the micronutrients. This process should be carefully supported by Truehope’s customer support. They have developed a cross-titration protocol to guide people in recognizing and managing drug withdrawals and optimizing the micronutrients for you personally.

WARNING: Do not ever attempt to stop taking psychotropic medications cold turkey (stopping suddenly). This can be VERY DANGEROUS, even life threatening, due to effects of drug withdrawals. 

Step Three: Therapy

Many people who develop bipolar symptoms are suffering from emotional dysregulation caused by unhealed trauma, unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and unhealthy boundaries. The difficulty that many people have, however, is that they don’t understand how to use therapy effectively to process and heal trauma.

In the post Six Tips for Getting the Most Out of Therapy I share how to utilize therapy as a healing modality—not just for coping.

  • Find a good therapist: Therapy is a tool, and the therapist is a facilitator. You need to find someone that you feel safe working with and opening up to. It is also important to find someone proactive and well trained that is going to help you heal, not just cope.
  • Give your therapist something to work with: Therapists aren’t mind readers; they only have the information you provide. You can become more self-aware through utilizing the MCSG, mood tracking apps and journaling. Then share what you learn with your therapist to get to the root of triggers and symptoms in order to heal and recover.
  • Use therapy proactively, not just reactively: Only going to therapy when you are in a serious crisis as a sort of triage isn’t helpful if you stop when the crisis is past. Use therapy in a proactive manner that will help you uncover the underlying causes of symptoms to heal and prevent future issues.
  • Focus on healing, not blaming: If the focus in therapy is on a person or people who harmed you rather than the resultant emotional and mental injury it can be disempowering and prevent progress and healing. Instead, a focus on healing and setting healthy boundaries will empower you to recover.
  • You get out of therapy what you put into it: Do your homework! It is as simple as that. If you want to change, you have to make changes. Set goals with your therapist, use a therapy notebook and follow through on implementing changes in thought and behavior between sessions in order to progress towards healing.
  • Therapy takes time: Be patient. It takes time to uncover and heal emotional and mental injuries. It may not be comfortable, but the end result is absolutely worth the effort, no matter how long it takes.

Step Four: Mindfulness Meditation

Bipolar symptoms can cause you to feel like you can’t trust your own mind. There is often a disconnect that can result from the emotional overwhelm and coping mechanisms developed as a result. Mindfulness meditation will put you back in the driver’s seat of your mind and help you become friends with your brain again.

One of the best programs for understanding and practicing mindfulness meditation is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This therapy is recognized in the United Kingdom as being more effective than antidepressants for treating depression. The book Mindfulness: An Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman teaches MBCT in a very simple, easy to use format. 

MBCT facilitates:

  • a deeper level of self-awareness making therapy more effective, and
  • your ability to stay present thus overcoming many of the causes of anxiety, and depressive symptoms.

Step Five: Yoga

The mental distress that causes bipolar symptoms has a profound impact on the body. Yoga takes the benefits of mindfulness and incorporates them into the body. Yoga has proven to be a powerful healing modality for mental illness and trauma. It can facilitate reintegration of the mind and body and heal the mental and emotional dysregulation that was caused by trauma.

Step Six: Exercise

Perhaps the most well-known of the steps is the positive impact of simple, consistent exercise on healing mental health. It is important to keep the exercise:

  • Simple,
  • Easy, 
  • Accessible, and
  • Focused on supporting your mental health, not damaging it.

Check out the post The Benefits of Exercise to learn more.

Step Seven: Living Mindfully

Recovery from bipolar symptoms is a process that takes time and is not linear. Understanding what the recovery process looks like will help you be more intentional and persistent. 

Recovery Cycle

Recognize that when you experience symptoms you have not failed, it is an opportunity to learn. The recovery from bipolar symptoms is similar to the addiction recovery cycle. Each time you “relapse” or experience symptoms is an opportunity to learn something new—identify a trigger, better understand your micronutrition needs, establish healthy boundaries, etc.

Over time your self-awareness and knowledge will grow, your recovery will progress, and you will experience longer periods without symptoms and begin to live a healthy, balanced, productive life.

If you are ready to begin healing your bipolar disorder, check out the Upsiders’ Tribe where we support people through the steps to heal. 2024 is the Year of Healing—are you ready to heal?

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional, and I am not offering medical advice. I am sharing what I have learned about healing bipolar through my personal experience and research.

Click here for Mindset Shift to Heal Bipolar Part One: Three Bipolar Myths

Can You Heal Bipolar Disorder?

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

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

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

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

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

Normalizing Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing my Bipolar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Treatments are Taboo

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

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

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

Treating Only the Symptoms, Not the Cause

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

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

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

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

Healing Your Bipolar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth, develop a self-care routine that includes:

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

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

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

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

What is Your Bipolar Treatment Plan?

treatment plan

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

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

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

Is Bipolar Like Diabetes?

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

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

Yes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and No

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating My Own Treatment Plan

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

Medication to Micronutrients

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

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

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

Proactive Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness Meditation

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

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

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

Self-care

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

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

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

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

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

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

✔️commit to the path, 

✔️choose to take the steps, and 

✔️recommit yourself each day to continue the journey,

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

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

Symptoms of Mania and Depression: Don’t Normalize Them!

symptoms of mania and depression

Something that I have noticed on social media over the past few years is the normalization of the symptoms of mania and depression. It is usually motivated by the desire to raise awareness or help foster compassion for people that are experiencing the symptoms. Awareness can be helpful if it is done to help people recognize the symptoms in themselves or others so that they can get help, but normalizing the symptoms is different.

To normalize something is to “make it normal and natural in everyday life” but there are things that we shouldn’t be viewing as normal. That includes the symptoms of bipolar. I understand the desire to make it seem normal because it feels like this will be your “normal” for the rest of your life and you want to be accepted as you are.

Is It Normal?

If I had been able to see people normalizing bipolar symptoms 13 years ago it might have felt validating for me and it would have made me feel less alone. At that time, I believed the best I could expect out of my life with bipolar disorder was learning how to suffer well with it. After 12 years of trying dozens of different medications prescribed by my doctors, hospitalizations, electroconvulsive therapy and suicide attempts I had resigned myself to an existence of just surviving life.

Experience had taught me that no matter how hard I tried, or what medication I took, I would always suffer with unpredictable mood cycles and struggle helplessly through the manic-depressive rollercoaster. I felt like I had no control over my bipolar and I would be at the mercy of the mood-cycles for the rest of my life. The idea of helping people understand what I was going through and asking them to have compassion for me when I was compulsive and irrational would have been very appealing. 

Over the past thirteen years my perspective on bipolar has changed. In 2010 I found the first tool on the road to wellness. My doctor and I found a micronutrient treatment that helped my brain begin to heal. Over the following decade I started finding other tools to continue the healing process and I eventually discovered that I can live a healthy, balanced, productive life. 

Once I recognized that it was possible to live well with bipolar, I started to understand that normalizing the symptoms of the disorder is actually very detrimental to those who are living with it. 

A Mind in Distress

The first problem with normalizing the symptoms of bipolar is that you start to view them as normal or acceptable rather than what they are, indications of a mind in distress. We don’t normalize the symptoms of other illnesses. 

Take diabetes, for example. If someone is having excessive thirst and fatigue, blurry vision, losing weight without trying, or passing out you don’t seek to normalize these symptoms because you are afraid the person will feel bad for what they are experiencing. That would be ridiculous! You recognize that there is something wrong with the body. It is in distress and needs treatment to address the underlying cause of the symptoms.

The same should be true for bipolar disorder. The symptoms of mania and depression are indications that the mind is in distress and needs treatment to address the underlying cause. Normalizing these symptoms doesn’t help you when you’re suffering, it just prolongs it unnecessarily.

Damaging Relationships

One of the worst challenges that I experienced when I was struggling with bipolar for the first decade was that I would do and say things when I was manic or depressed that I wouldn’t normally say or do. This included behavior that was abusive and painful to my family. 

When I was back in a rational state of mind, I felt humiliated and discouraged by what I had done and vowed that I wouldn’t repeat it again, only to break that promise the next time I was in a mood cycle. This contributed to me feeling helpless and hopeless. I knew I was damaging relationships and I didn’t know how to stop it. 

The worst experiences came in 2008 when my disorder was at its worst. That year I was hospitalized multiple times, experienced my first psychotic episode and I made two attempts on my life. The symptoms I was displaying were emotionally and mentally damaging to my husband and my children. Regardless of whether I was doing them on purpose, my family was being harmed–and I knew it. 

Normalizing the symptoms that were hurting me and my family wouldn’t have helped, it would have hurt us. It wasn’t fair to me that I had bipolar, but it also wasn’t fair to my family. I needed to find a way to treat my disorder effectively, not expect them to accept abusive and damaging behavior as part of our relationship.

Normalizing Perpetuates Stigma

Finally, the idea that trying to create awareness for bipolar by normalizing the symptoms actually has the opposite effect than what is intended. Instead of creating more compassion around the disorder, it can make people who see it from the outside more cautious about entering into relationships, or hiring people who have bipolar because it looks like people are trying to make excuses for unhealthy behavior.

While it can create a feeling of solidarity among those suffering with bipolar, it perpetuates the stigmas for those who do not understand what it feels like to have those symptoms. Additionally, it can make those who are newly diagnosed feel more resistant to accepting their disorder and more helpless and hopeless that they can ever live well with it.

We shouldn’t stigmatize the behavior of someone that is struggling with something that they feel is beyond their control. But it doesn’t help to try and normalize the symptoms of bipolar either. Recognize symptoms as indications that the mind is in distress and needs help because it is possible to treat bipolar and live well with it!

Accept Your Diagnosis

The first step to treating your bipolar is accepting that you have the disorder. This can be a struggle for people often because of the stigma attached to the disorder. When I was early on in my diagnosis, I struggled to accept that I had bipolar because it didn’t feel tangible to me. The diagnosis is based on mental and emotional symptoms that seemed really ambiguous. 

Any time I didn’t experience the symptoms I would think that I had been misdiagnosed and that I didn’t really have the disorder. Then another mood cycle would start up again. Remembering that the symptoms of the disorder are indications of a mind in distress can help you view the symptoms in a healthy way. The symptoms of bipolar are like your body having a fever. They are trying to tell you there is something wrong that needs to be treated.

Track Your Symptoms

Begin tracking the symptoms of your bipolar using a mood tracking app. I highly recommend the Bearable app. 

  • (This is not sponsored and I receive no benefit from recommending the app, it is the one I use and it is very user friendly, highly customizable and the free version is very robust.) 

Tracking your symptoms can help you provide more accurate and complete information to your doctor or therapist for more effective treatment. It also will help you to recognize when you are entering a manic or depressive episode so you can manage the mood-cycle more successfully.

Proactively Manage Mood-swings

Developing a Mood-cycle Survival Guide will help you learn to successfully manage your bipolar mood swings. While you are learning the tools necessary to effectively treat your bipolar will experience mood swings and being proactive about managing them will help you:

  • stop feeling like a victim to the mood-swings, 
  • lessen the impact on you and your family, and 
  • shorten the duration of the mood-cycle.

Get on the Path to Wellness

Unfortunately, the comparison between bipolar and diabetes doesn’t extend to the treatment of the disorder. It would be wonderful if treating bipolar were as simple as taking an insulin shot. When I was first diagnosed, I was told by my doctor that all I needed to do was find the right combination of medications and I would be fine. That idea was appealing to me because it was as simple as taking medication, but it proved to be false. 

Even though treating bipolar isn’t as easy as just taking some medication, it is possible to treat it effectively and live well with the disorder. The path to wellness includes:

You don’t need to suffer with the symptoms of your bipolar for the rest of your life. Remember, symptoms are an indication that your mind is in distress. If you treat the underlying cause, you can heal your mind and lessen or eliminate your symptoms. You can live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar. There is hope and there is help.

Should I Have Children If I Have Bipolar Disorder?

One question I hear frequently is:

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

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

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

Mindset

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

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

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

Accept that you have bipolar

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

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

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

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

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

Recognize what “wellness” with bipolar disorder looks like

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

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

Preparing for Motherhood with Bipolar

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

Mood Cycle Survival Guide

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

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

Be Intentional about Prioritizing Self-care 

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

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

Balancing your brain chemistry

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

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

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

Working with a therapist

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

Developing a daily routine

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

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

Get support from other moms with bipolar disorder

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

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

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

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

 There is hope and there is help!

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

New Years Resolutions for bipolar

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Step One: Mindset

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

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

Step Two: Manage Your Mood Swings

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

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

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

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

 

Step Three: Work Towards Maintenance Mode

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

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

What is Your One Next Step?

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

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

–Scott Whiting

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Bipolar Disorder: Boundaries?

Boundaries. We hear that word all the time but how many people actually understand what boundaries are and how to set and respect healthy boundaries? 

A few years ago I was in a therapy session and my therapist started speaking about boundaries and I finally admitted to her that I didn’t really understand what she was talking about. She had mentioned boundaries off and on during previous sessions, and I just kept nodding and smiling because I had a vague idea of what boundaries were. However, during this particular session I realized that not understanding clearly what boundaries were and how to apply them in my life in a healthy way was causing problems for me.

The way that my therapist explained them during that session was in terms of physical boundaries. She explained that countries have clearly defined boundaries that define what territory makes up their jurisdiction. A country has the right to create laws, penalties for violation of its laws and responsibilities to its citizens within its boundaries. It also has the right to protect itself from violations of its boundaries. Countries also need to respect the boundaries of other countries or there can be negative consequences.

At the time it was still a little abstract for me. Over time as I have worked with my therapist to understand what boundaries are and gained experience with implementing and respecting boundaries, I have begun to understand the concept better. I also better understand why learning about and implementing healthy boundaries in your life is so critical to living well with bipolar disorder.

Why People with Bipolar Disorder Struggle with Boundaries

When you have bipolar disorder, especially before you learn how to effectively manage it, you can feel like you don’t have any control over what is happening in your mind. The dramatic mood cycles you experience–from mania to depression–feel like an extreme mental and emotional rollercoaster that you cannot get off. This can cause you to act and speak in ways that you normally wouldn’t act or speak.

You may not even recognize that you are experiencing a mood cycle initially because many of the symptoms are in your head and feel normal to you. Many of the thoughts and feelings are irrational but may seem completely rational to you. The intensity of emotion (or lack of emotion) feels overpowering. 

All of this can cause you to experience anger, frustration and helplessness as you daily fight a battle with an enemy in your own mind. Having bipolar feels unfair and this feeling of unfairness can make it difficult to set healthy boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others.

You may feel like you don’t have a choice, it’s not your fault and you can’t do anything about it anyway, so everyone else just has to put up with it, too. This leads you to violate the boundaries of others and feel justified in doing it. 

On the other hand you may feel overwhelmed by guilt for the things you do and say when you are struggling with a mood cycle, or feelings of worthlessness because you judge yourself as damaged or broken. These feelings can lead you to believe that you don’t have the right to have boundaries. You feel like you have to allow others to treat you however they want because you don’t have the right to object.

Unhealthy boundaries damage you and others. It damages relationships, your feelings of value and self-worth and the emotional turmoil can make your mood cycle worse.

Understanding Boundaries for Bipolar Disorder

Going back to the border analogy, when you are establishing boundaries for yourself you need to identify two things: your “laws” for what is permitted and your responsibilities within your borders. 

Laws within your borders

When you have bipolar it is easy to feel like you don’t know if you are rational or not. When you are manic you think you are the most rational person in the world, compelled to act on the thoughts and feelings you have. When you are depressed you may struggle to function at all. You can feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and robbed of the ability to do simple things like shower, or even get out of bed. 

Both sides of this can lead to feeling either defensive when someone comments on your behavior, or may make you feel like you don’t have a right to object to the way they speak to you because you think they’re right, you must be irrational, lazy, compulsive, etc.

Not having healthy boundaries about what kind of communication you will respond to, however, is not beneficial to you, or to the relationship. If you are allowing someone else to speak to you in a way that reinforces negative thoughts and feelings you have about yourself you will further damage yourself emotionally which then feeds the mood cycle.

You need to set healthy boundaries for communication and behavior. This includes setting clear boundaries to protect yourself from unhealthy or abusive behavior and words. You should also agree with those you trust on healthy ways they can communicate their concern if they see you behaving in a way that is harmful to you or others. 

Working with your therapist you can begin to identify what boundaries will be best for you and how you can effectively communicate your boundaries to others. You can’t choose how others behave, but you can establish what you will allow in your life and what you will do if someone doesn’t respect those boundaries.

Responsibility within your borders

Just as a country has responsibility to the citizens within its borders you are responsible for yourself–your behavior, your choices, your self-care. This may feel impossible at times when you have bipolar disorder. Experiencing irrational states of mind and emotions can make you feel like the bipolar is in control and you are just along for the ride.

The reality is that you are the only one who can be responsible for yourself. You are not your disorder, and you can learn how to manage it so that you can live a healthy, balanced, productive life. It takes work and persistent effort, but it is possible.

The first step is to learn how to successfully manage your mood cycles. Start by creating a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. This plan helps you proactively manage your mood cycles so that you lessen the impact on yourself and those you love and shorten the duration of the cycle.

The next step is to work to find something to balance your brain. For some people that is with medication, for others it is through treatment with micronutrients, or a combination of the two. The symptoms of bipolar are telling you that something is missing or out of balance and you need to address that need in your brain. Persist until you find what is right for your brain. 

Third, go to therapy. When you have bipolar disorder you will develop unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealthy coping mechanisms (sometimes this includes addictions) and you may have unhealed trauma, and unhealthy boundaries. Working with a good therapist will help you identify what you need to work on, process and heal so you can interact with the world in healthy ways. If you avoid therapy you may find the right medication or supplements but the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors will continue to trigger mood swings.

Finally, develop a self-care routine. Self-care is a phrase that you hear all the time and it can conjure images of manicures at a day spay, bubble baths or vacations to tropical places. These are definitely nice ways to take care of yourself, but the self-care necessary for managing bipolar disorder is caring for your mind and body in a way that helps you stay healthy and balanced. This includes important tools like mindfulness meditation, healthy sleep patterns and nutrition, yoga and simple, consistent exercise.

Respecting the boundaries of others

It is necessary to learn how to respect the boundaries of others. It’s really hard to feel like you can accept responsibility for your actions when you are doing and saying things from an irrational state of mind. But the reality is that you are still doing and saying those things. So how do you take responsibility for yourself?

First, always say sorry when you hurt someone by something you say or do. It may not be easy. It can feel humiliating to have to admit to the things you do or say when you are in a manic or depressed state. But the first step to mending the damage is to acknowledge what you did and apologize sincerely.

When a child hurts someone, even if it is by accident, you teach them to say sorry. They didn’t do it on purpose, but the other person still got hurt and so it is important to acknowledge their pain. The same is true for pain you cause when you are struggling with a mood cycle. You may not have meant to cause the pain, but the other person was still hurt by something you did, and you need to acknowledge their pain.

Next, talk with others about their boundaries. Having conversations with your partner or spouse, children and others who are close to you will help you understand their boundaries better so you can learn how to interact with them in healthy ways. If you aren’t sure how to approach this kind of conversation, talk with your therapist. He or she can give you help understanding what to say and may even be able to facilitate it in a session with the other person or people. 

Finally, accept that there will be times when someone needs a break from the relationship. This is really hard because it doesn’t feel fair that you have to deal with this disorder in the first place. We all want others to accept us and love us as we are. However, there will be times when someone needs to prioritize their emotional, physical or mental safety and may need to set a boundary to protect themselves.

Just as you need to set healthy boundaries and prioritize caring for yourself, you need to respect the need and right for others to do the same. 

How to Define and Apply Boundaries

The most effective way to learn how to define and apply healthy boundaries in your life is by working with a good therapist. Boundaries can feel abstract and complicated, and your life experience and unhealed trauma can create barriers to learning how to implement them. A therapist can work with you to help you learn what boundaries are and how to implement these tools effectively.

Learning how to utilize and respect healthy boundaries in your life is an important step on your path to learning to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar Disorder: Six Tips for Getting the Most Out of Therapy

Recently I have been thinking about the blessing that therapy has been in my life and how I didn’t always feel that way. When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was willing to take any medication the doctor prescribed because I believed them when they said that would help me get better. Therapy, on the other hand, I was adamantly opposed to because I didn’t understand what it was.

Growing up one of my grandmothers frequently referred to things her therapist had told her. I remember thinking it was weird to have someone else tell you what or how to think. Because of this I never wanted to go to therapy. It didn’t help that a common taunt growing up among peers was “you need therapy.”

This was reinforced by many of the representations of therapy in the media–on television and in movies. The people seeking therapy were often portrayed as messes who never got better, therapists were often portrayed as weird caricatures who were out of touch and condescending towards their clients.  None of it instilled any confidence in the institution and created in my mind intense resistance to the idea.

Over the years I have had many conversations with people who have had similar aversions to therapy. They have varying degrees of understanding and belief in therapy and it has caused me to reflect on what changed my perspective on therapy and what helped me to get the most out of this tool on my path to wellness with bipolar disorder.

One of the things that I have spoken to people about before is that I wish there was an orientation class for therapy to help people understand the purpose of therapy and how to get the most out of it. One of the big mistakes that people often make is focusing on the therapist as the expert and expecting them to guide the therapy. 

Therapy really is only as effective as both parties make it. You need a great therapist who is able to provide professional guidance within the ethical boundaries of their profession. Equally as important is your participation. This is where the class would come in–helping you to know how to do your part to make sure your therapy is productive and beneficial.

Here are my top six tips for getting the most out of therapy. This list is definitely not exhaustive, I’m confident there are other tips that would also improve your therapy experience. These are the top six from my personal experience. I would love to hear your tips in the comments.

First, Find the RIGHT therapist for YOU

Although therapists go through specialized education and training they are also people–not all therapists are good and not all therapists are a good fit for you. When you go to therapy you put yourself into a very vulnerable position. It is essential to have a therapist that you can trust and that you feel comfortable opening up to so that therapy will be effective. 

If you start seeing a therapist and you don’t feel that it is a good match, change therapists. It may seem like a hassle, however therapy will only be effective if you can work openly and honestly with your therapist. Be proactive and make sure that your therapist is a good match for you.

There are also a number of different therapeutic approaches and techniques–EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc.–and not all therapists are trained in or specialize all of the different modalities. There may be a specific type of therapy that will be most beneficial to you that your current therapist is not trained in. In that case it is best to seek a therapist that specializes in the type of therapy that you need, similar to seeking a medical professional that specializes in the type of physical ailment or injury that you have.

Second, Give Your Therapist Something to Work With

Therapists are not mind readers or magicians. One of the things that is challenging in therapy is that the only information that the therapist has to work with is what you give them. Sometimes this can be difficult because you don’t always know what to talk about. I remember the initial intake session with my first therapist. I was severely depressed and I didn’t want to be there–I was there because my parents had been urging me to go for years.

I didn’t know what to say. I struggled with thinking clearly and I didn’t know what to talk about. It took a few visits to figure out what I was doing. Over the years I have started to understand the process of therapy better. One of the things I have found extremely helpful is using a mood tracking app and journaling. These tools help to identify triggers, unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and unhealed trauma that your therapist can help you work through and heal. 

It is also important to not withhold information from your therapist because you are afraid of what he or she will think of you. This goes back to making sure you have a therapist you can trust. A good therapist is able to hold the information you provide without judgment. The focus of the therapist is to help you work through things in order to come to a place of mental health and healing. The more complete the picture you provide, the better he or she will be able to help you. 

Third, Therapy should be used proactively, not just reactively

One of the mistakes I made for years was only going to therapy when I was in crisis, and then when the crisis was over I would stop. This is counterproductive for many reasons. First, the process of establishing yourself with a new therapist can be exhausting and sometimes intimidating. 

It often takes multiple sessions with a new therapist for them to get enough information to start effectively working with you. It can also give a skewed picture to the therapist if their only experience with you is when you are in crisis. The longer you see a therapist the better they understand you, the more comfortable you become with your therapist and the more effective the relationship. Starting only when you are in crisis and then ending therapy when the crisis has passed can make it hard to get real, lasting benefit from therapy as a tool.

The other problem this creates, especially with bipolar disorder, is that there isn’t real progress made in identifying unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealed trauma and unhealthy boundaries. As long as these issues go untreated there will continue to be mood cycles that are caused by these unhealed and unprocessed triggers, even if you are on the right medications or micronutrients for your brain balance. 

Therapy as a tool is most effective when you use it proactively to learn to process and reduce crises in your life and not just reactively manage crises when they occur.

Fourth, Focus on Healing in Therapy, Not Blaming 

In therapy the focus needs to be on healing, not blaming–choosing to be a victim impedes your progress towards healing. Something that I have found to be a challenge in therapy, and I have heard others talk about in their experience, too, is that sometimes it is easy when you are in therapy to get focused on a person or persons that have caused you harm. 

The problem this presents is that if you become focused on the other person and what they have done it can prevent you from healing. You have no control over what someone else says or does and it can turn you into a victim who continues to be traumatized by another if your focus is on the choices of someone else. This can also prevent you from actually healing because it takes the power to choose away from you. 

Something that really helped me understand this better was thinking about emotional or mental injury the way I would think about a physical injury. If I broke my leg I would go to the hospital for help. While I would need to explain to the doctor what happened in order for her to assess the injury properly the focus would then turn to the injury itself and what treatment was necessary to heal the injury. 

The more serious the injury the more serious the intervention. The only other discussion about the way the injury occured would be if it was likely to occur again, what boundaries would need to be implemented to prevent further injury.

This helped me so much in learning how to process trauma. When I am working through trauma the most important thing is to focus on the injury itself and utilize the necessary treatment to process and heal the trauma. Learning to implement healthy boundaries to prevent further injury is critical too. This approach is empowering and will help the healing process so much more than if you spend all of your time focused on the person who caused your injuries. You can’t control their choices, but you can choose to heal from them and protect yourself from further injury.

Fifth, You get out of therapy what you put into it

When you are seeing a therapist you need to actively participate not just in the session but in doing the “homework” between sessions. Sometimes we want things to be simple and easy–take a pill and you’ll feel better. But the reality is that therapy is not easy. It takes effort to first discover the unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, unhealed trauma and unhealthy boundaries, and then work to process them or replace them with healthy alternatives. 

If you are not willing to put in the effort during sessions and between sessions therapy will not be productive or helpful. As you work with your therapist, prioritize the work between sessions in your day to day life. Make sure that you are setting alarms to remind yourself and following through on what you committed to do so that you will be able to make real change and progress in improving your mental health. 

Sixth, Therapy takes time

There is a saying that therapy is like peeling back layers of an onion. I have learned from first hand experience that this is true. When you begin therapy there may be pressing issues that first feel like they are the only issues. You set therapy goals and work towards them. Over time as you work to heal the initial problem you will likely discover additional issues that need your attention. Do not be impatient with the process. 

It takes time to uncover the mental, emotional and psychological issues that are contributing to or possibly even causing your mental illness. It takes time and effort but as you work to heal you will begin to live in a more balanced and healthy way. 

When I first started therapy I had an end date in my mind. I still struggled with some stigmas in my mind about what it meant to see a therapist. Over time I have started to understand that this is an important tool to live well with bipolar and my view and opinion of therapy has changed.

I don’t know if I will ever stop going to therapy. I continue to see my therapist once a month. I do this for a number of reasons. First, it takes so much effort–emotional and mental–to begin with a therapist and that can be a barrier to starting with a new therapist. I have a productive relationship with my current therapist and don’t want to start over with someone new so I continue to maintain the therapeutic relationship in case I need her. 

Second, I have found that at least a few times a year something new will come up that I need help resolving, processing or healing and I am able to add sessions when necessary. Finally, I know that I will never be “cured” from having bipolar disorder and therefore find value in maintaining a relationship with a professional to give me someone I can check in with periodically to make sure I am stable and healthy.

Therapy can be a powerful tool for healing emotionally and mentally. The more you understand this tool and how to use it well the more effective it will be in helping you learn how to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar.

Bipolar Disorder: Lessons from the Pandemic

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

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

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

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

Increasing Mental Illness

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

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

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

Becoming Proactive

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

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

Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

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

In this plan you:

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

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

Back-up Supply of Medications or Supplements

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

Counseling or Therapy

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

Self-care

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

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

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

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

Support System

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

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

Some people to remember in your support system are:

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

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

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

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

Bipolar Disorder: How My Daughter Saved My Life

TW: This blog post mentions suicide. If you are having thoughts of self-harm please contact 911 (or your local emergency services) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 (in the USA).

My Story

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. 

The Decision

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 Plan

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. 

  1. Finding effective medication/supplements
  2. Proactively seeking treatment with a good therapist
  3. Learning to practice mindfulness meditation–this is an especially important tool for identifying and challenging intrusive thoughts
  4. 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. 

There is hope and there is help!

If you are having thoughts of self-harm please contact 911 (or your local emergency services) or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 (in the USA).