Mindfulness will help you to realise what mood or state of mind you’re in so you can take action before it controls you. It will also help you stop both positive and negative rumination that will greatly reduce your bipolar ups and downs.
The principle of mindfulness is pretty simple, spend more time in the present so that you are able appreciate and accept what is happening right now instead of thinking what has happened in the past, which can lead to depression, or what will happen in the future, which can lead to anxiety or mania.
This is not to say that we need to spend ALL our time in the present, since we do need to plan the future and evaluate the past but we cut out unnecessary time ruminating about what has happened or what may still happen. Negative rumination can lead to depression and positive rumination can lead to mania or hypomania.
We practice mindfulness techniques before we are in a crisis situation so that we can try to prevent ourselves from reaching crisis or to shorten the severity and duration of the crisis if we do slip into one.
The hardest part about mindfulness is actually remembering to practice. Many people with bipolar conditions have poor memories so this makes it even harder. However, if you build it into a new routine and practice it at the same time each day it gets easier and after a while you’ll find your brain using it more and more without having to focus on it quite so much. I set reminders in my phone and calendar, which I find works quite well.
It will be worthwhile to clarify some of the different terms used in this practice.
Mindfulness: ” A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations “
Mindfulness Meditation: Meditation is often used to bring ourselves to a state of mindfulness. It is useful to help train our minds to spend more time in the present. While meditation is not necessary to reach a state of mindfulness, it is specially helpful for people that experience bipolar conditions and can be likened to a sportsperson that has to practice intensely in order to improve their technique.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT): MBCT courses are designed for people that suffer from depressive disorders. This approach uses mindfulness to make us aware of our thoughts and feelings but combines it with a process to deal with emotional and cognitive distortions that many people with bipolar experience. For example with the common bipolar anger, people are taught to recognise the triggers that lead to anger and then deal with those feelings appropriately before they turn into severe rumination or full blown anger.
How Can I learn Mindfulness?
1. There are some easy exercises, that I will show you, to get you started.
2. Take an 8 or 12 week MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) program. This amount of time is needed to build a new routine and to get you into the new way of thinking and looking at the world. It involves a lot of practice time and you must be dedicated to make it work BUT the trade-off is that you will find it really worth while in the long run and will build a solid base of understanding.
I found the following book invaluable as a starting point, it is a 12 week program so you can follow it like a regular course. It provides downloadable audio meditation guides and lots of information and case studies for bipolar specific issues. Although aimed at practitioners and mindfulness experts I didn’t find it hard to understand.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder by Deckersbach, Hölzel, Eisner, Lazar, Nierenberg) Find it on our Resources Page
You can also google “MBCT program” and take an 8 week course at a centre near you worldwide. Courses typically cost from $250-$600 and you will attend once a week for about 2 hours each time. Make sure it is run by a reputable person or organisation. The benefit of attending a course is that you will interact with other people and learn from their experiences, which can be very motivating. Be aware that these courses are not aimed at people with bipolar specifically but more at depressive and anxiety disorders. You will, however, most likely find that your manic symptoms will dramatically improve as a natural result.
3. Read as much as you can and keep up your practice. The more you practise the more it will just start to take place naturally in your day to day activities. It’s important to practice even when you’re feeling good so that you strengthen your mind. Don’t get discouraged if the progress is slow. It can take many months to really feel like you’re getting somewhere and you’ll still have some days that you feel like giving up. You’ll make the most progress if you are able to put your work to the test on the difficult days. Stop, think about what will be of the most benefit right now and try your best to just be present for short periods. Often you’ll find yourself in a better state of mind than you were with just a little effort.