Mindfulness — Essential Bipolar Survival Skill?
I wrote that Mindfulness Doesn’t Help My Bipolar Disorder. And I think mindfulness, at least how I was taught it, just doesn’t significantly, positive affect a serious, neurological illness. I find it works best in people who experience stress and anxiety. And many do agree with me on this.
That said, John McManamy does not. Here are his thoughts on mindfulness in bipolar disorder.
Mindfulness is essentially the mind watching the mind. The practice has been around forever. It is a staple of Buddhist practice, and is also the basis of modern talking therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), even if its proponents fail to give it credit.
In all likelihood, if you have had success in managing your bipolar, you are employing mindfulness techniques, though you may be unaware of it.
Mindfulness in Action in Bipolar Disorder
In 2005, Melbourne researcher Sarah Russell published a study that surveyed 100 “successful” bipolar patients, asking what they did to stay well. What she discovered boiled down to mindfulness, though she didn’t use that term. Rather, she talked about “moving swiftly to intercept a mood swing.” This had to do with how patients “were responding to their mental, emotional, social, and physical environment.”
By quickly responding, successful patients could often nip an episode in the bud. Sometimes it was as simple as getting a good night’s sleep or stopping to smell the roses. Other times, it was about making medication adjustments.
Monica Basco’s cognitive therapy approach to managing bipolar, The Bipolar Workbook: Tools for Controlling Your Moodswings, similarly takes a mindfulness approach, again without explicit acknowledgement. “See It Coming,” reads the heading of the first section.
We need to learn to take stock, she advises, spot patterns, and recognize triggers. In other words, we need to be exceptionally mindful about what is going on in our lives.
Enter mindfulness. In his book, The Mindful Way Through Depression, Jon Kabat-Zinn urges cultivating awareness by not taking our thoughts so literally and by “disengaging the autopilot.”
Mindfulness, he says, “is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are,” rather than as we want them to be.
Once again, it’s all about spotting trouble way in advance – stress, energy levels, destructive thoughts and emotions – before our vulnerable brains run away from us.
How People with Bipolar Can Use Mindfulness
A good deal of the time, the intervention is fairly simple – a time-out, a break, some quiet moments, a good night’s sleep. In cognitive therapy, this is where we work on changing “it’s the end of the world” to “let’s see if we can find a solution.”
As with any bipolar treatment or management technique, there are no guarantees, but cultivating a keen awareness of what is going on in our brains at any given moment is a surely a much better strategy than passively being taken by surprise.
The second edition to Goodwin and Jamison’s Manic-Depressive Illness characterizes bipolar as an illness that takes on a life of its own. Indeed, that is our apparent fate, to be at the mercy of the relentless cycles that define our illness.
Or we can choose to be active players in managing our illness. This is generally easier said than done, especially when we sense our brain in the process of rapid disintegration.
One day, my illness may swoop in out of nowhere and show me once and for all who is boss. The daily challenge of living with my illness forces me to be aware of that terrible truth every day of my life.
I need to be vigilant. I am dealing with an illness that takes no prisoners. For me, mindfulness is not an option. It is an absolute necessity.
John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder. He is currently working on a six-book Bipolar Expert Series. The first book in that series, Not Just Up and Down, is now available.
Banner image by Flickr user Darragh O Connor.