It is useful to gain some understanding of the thinking mechanisms so that we can appreciate how to go about changing the way we react to situations. By making some changes we can start to move from an uncontrolled mind to a more controlled one where our emotions are more in check. This is of great use to people with Bipolar disorder as we can spend less time in high or low mood states and can lead to a more stable life. Our task is to start to use the wise mind when reacting to a situation or making a decision.
People who use mostly The Emotional Mind can often base their actions on feelings, beliefs and emotions rather than what is actually true. They can often act impulsively and lack self-control. Sound familiar? Think about when you get very angry, feel very low or very high, experience a compulsion to abuse alcohol or other substances or if you feel hypersexual.
People who use mostly The Rational or Reasoning Mind can sometimes be inflexible in thinking and generally unwilling to consider anything that is outside of what they already “know” to be true. They can be highly opinionated and stuck on rules and regulations.
Sometimes a person with bipolar disorder may use both parts of their mind but just not always at the same time.
The Wise Mind is a combination of our emotional mind and rational mind. When we use our wise mind we rely less on our emotions or rigid thinking to make decisions but are able to carefully think through a situation so that we make the best decision possible. We use our knowledge to solve problems but at the same time can use empathy to understand and consider other viewpoints.
When using the wise mind we are more able to clearly work out an optimal solution to situations that arise daily. We can also remain calmer or become calm quicker when we feel attacked in some way by other people, which can result in more pleasure from life. For people with bipolar conditions it can mean less time ruminating about negative interactions since better choices have been made or more understanding of other people and less unfair judgement. This can lessen or shorten the amount of time spent in low moods and increase the pleasure you get from life. Using the wise mind can also cut down on mania since you are able to make better decisions thus stopping it from getting out of control.
Getting to use the wise mind takes time and practice but the more you are able to put it into practice, the easier it will eventually get. Each time you are able to fight your urges to react in a certain way, the stronger your mind and emotional state will become.
How do we learn to use the wise mind?
We primarily use Mindfulness and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to move into the wise mind
Mindfulness can help to take us out of a rumanitive or negative mindframe and make us aware that we are over-using either the emotional or rational part of our mind. It can also help to realise when we are using manic thinking so that we can take the correct action at the time. With practice you will start to realise when your thinking is not optimal and then take the necessary action to remedy it.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy will give you the knowledge of the type of negative or unhelpful thinking you are performing and give you additional tools to correct or avoid thinking this way.
However, all the methods that we describe on this website ultimately lead you to use your wise mind in the long run. Physical exercise helps get rid of stress and increases blood flow so that you can think more clearly. Routines and getting to bed early help you to be at your best to deal with situations that arise. Understanding your triggers will give you more insight into what is causing you to react in a certain way.
Amygdala vs Prefrontal Frontal Cortex
It is also useful to know a little about the brain structure and which parts of the brain are used when we make decisions. By realizing which parts of the brain we use we are able to start to move from using one part and more of another, also called neuroplasticity.
I have deliberately simplified this for a quick understanding but two parts of our brain that control our emotions, decisions, actions and behaviours are the Amygdala and the Prefrontal Cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is part of the frontal lobe. This is used for more complex planning, controlled behaviour, personality expression and decision making.
The amygdala is a much more ancient part of our brain that is largely responsible for emotions and our “fight-flight-freeze” responses. In a dangerous or stressful situation the amygdala will be the main driver in our decision in what to do, but doesn’t always mean it will be the best decision. For instance if we are being attacked it will give us a split second decision about whether to fight or run or just curl up into a ball. It has been noted that for people with bipolar the amygdala is often larger than in other people and thus could explain why we often use our emotions first when a situation arises.
The good news is that it is possible to learn to use our prefrontal cortex more and our amygdala less so that we are better able to use our wise mind when making decisions. We use a combination of mindfulness, CBT and other techniques to achieve this so that we are better able to consider the possible outcomes when responding to any external stimulus.
Exercise: This week when any decision or situation arises, stop, think for a bit and ask yourself, “What would a wise person do?”
I find this easier if I pretend that I’m someone I consider to be wise or diplomatic, for me this is Nelson Mandela. If a situation occurs I try to ask, “What Nelson Mandela would do?” Who would your wise person be, is it someone you know personally like a friend or relative, or someone more high profile?
Practice this as many times as you can each day for a week. It will be easier to do if you have already practised the mindfulness exercises for a few weeks or months so that you are able to catch yourself before you react. This is difficult but gets easier with time so don’t give up if it doesn’t work for you every time just yet. If you can just let the thought cross your mind at this stage, whether you are able or not to make a better choice, that is a great start and you have already started to make changes to your brain.
Extra reading: The book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Golman explains in much more detail how the brain works and what we can do to improve our thinking. If you are interested, I would highly suggest reading this book to gain a better understanding of this topic.