Healing Bipolar Part Three: Why Mindfulness Meditation is Necessary

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

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

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

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My Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation

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

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

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

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

A Simple Program That Works

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

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

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

Why You Need Mindfulness

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

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

Learning to Exercise Your Mental Muscles

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

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

Grounding

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

Interrupting the “Feed-back Loop”:

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

You Are Not Your Thoughts

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

Becoming More Effective and Proactive in Therapy

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

Healthier Emotional Responses

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

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Meditation Practice, the Key to a Balanced, Healthy Day

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

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

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

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

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