Mindfulness is much more than a current trend. It dates back to ancient times and plays a central role in many eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. However, it can have many benefits for all people of all faiths.
Recently, the world of psychology has turned to this ancient practice for the treatment of various mental disorders. This practice can give a person insight into the maladaptive thought patterns that cause complex emotions and behaviors.
It’s relatively easy to see how reflection can help relieve anxiety by calming you down racing thoughts. It is a bit more difficult to understand how mental exercises that look like nothing more than sitting on a pillow can affect mental disorders with biological factors.
Can mindfulness and meditation really help with bipolar disorder symptoms? Here’s what scientists know so far.
Mindfulness meditation for depression
Psychologists used to call bipolar disorder manic depression because of the mood swings and varying energy levels associated with the disorder. These mood episodes last from days to weeks and often involve a third or neutral state. During high (manic or hypomanic) periods, people feel alive, happy, and full of energy, but that bubble can quickly burst, descending into the darkness of depression.
Although women are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression as men, both sexes are equally likely experience bipolar disorder. The condition has a strong genetic component. Other factors, such as systemic inequality, oppression, and the overwhelming pressures of household and career management, likely contribute to gender differences in mental disorders where genes play a smaller role.
Regardless of the underlying cause, mindfulness meditation can help relieve depression symptoms by doing the following:
Making you aware of negative thoughts
Depression often creates what psychologists call a negative feedback loop. It works like this: something unpleasant causes an unpleasant opinion. It could be something as simple as forgetting to set the alarm, but you think, “I’m such an idiot. Now I will be late for work and the boss will be angry. Apparently, I will be fired – how can I even show my face? I will not go today.” You go back under the covers, where you lie, feeling guilty.
One unpleasant thought leads to another as you spend your day bedridden in despair. It’s all negative thinking changes your brain chemistrycreating new neural pathways that make you more likely to see only the dark side of life.
If your mind slips down these well-trodden paths of grief, your mood will deteriorate. Your altered neurotransmitter levels will make it harder for you to see the positive aspects of a situation.
Fortunately, mindfulness will allow you to hit the pause button. Sitting in meditation helps you realize how fleeting and temporary your mental chatter is. You will learn to observe your thoughts non-judgmentally, realizing that they too will pass.
Practicing mindfulness will also remind you to stop if you start thinking negatively during the day. When you do, you can apply your learning by saying, “I think _____,” before succumbing to the default response.
For example, you might say, “I’m thinking of calling today because I can’t face the consequences of being late to the office.” You can then decide for yourself if you should act on this idea or if there is a healthier approach to sleeping through your alarm.
Increasing your understanding of mood management
Those who meditate regularly know how to perform a body scan to relieve aches and pains through breathing and progressive relaxation. Did you know you can also scan your mood?
Remember that you are not your thoughts, nor are you your emotions. Feelings are temporary, but how you react to them determines what neural pathways you strengthen.
You may have a day where you just feel mildly depressed with low energy. Developing an awareness of this condition will help you choose the right self-care actions to improve it.
Sometimes it can look like a proactive decision to push a complicated schedule anyway. In other situations, it might mean coming home after a hard day to unwind with a gentle yoga class or pampering yourself in a steam bath.
The difference is that with mindfulness you get behind the wheel and respond to your feelings with compassion instead of just reacting. This will help you make better decisions and strengthen your core belief that your emotions are real and worth acknowledging and caring about.
Using mindfulness to quiet mania
Bipolar disorder also has a stage of acute mania characterized by an very euphoric or irritable moodexcess energy, rapid thinking and speech, reckless behavior, and a sense of invincibility.
This condition sounds great for getting things done, but it can have a detrimental effect on decision-making and lead to choices that make life difficult to manage.
You might blow your savings on risky stocks or quit your job in a fit of rage. You may engage in unwise sex or abuse food, drugs, and alcohol, which may lead to further health problems. Many patients use mind-altering substances to help them sleep, but this behavior can quickly turn into an addiction.
Here, too, a mindfulness meditation practice can flow off the mat, allowing you to hit the mental pause button and allowing you to recognize the feelings and behaviors that signal the onset of an acute manic episode. It cannot be overstated how important it is to practice these skills regularly so that awareness of your thoughts and moods becomes instinctive.
This principle comes into greatest relief during the manic phase. It may simply be impossible for you to make informed decisions because your mood or irritability only allows you to see the “correctness” of the desired course, even if it ends up being the wrong choice.
Helpfully, being acutely aware of your acute mania and its impact on your cognitive processes will give you the wisdom to let someone else take the driver’s seat or postpone important decisions until your mood stabilizes.
You can talk to a trusted friend or family member if you feel comfortable explaining your symptoms and how they are affecting you. If they want to help, ask them to gently remind you to put off an important choice and think twice while you’re manic.
Try mindfulness practices
As mentioned above, mindfulness meditation is an ancient practice with practical applications in today’s modern world. Psychologists have found it to be an effective tool for treating or reducing the effects of various mental disorders, including those with a strong genetic component, by helping to create new nerve pathways and improve your decision-making skills.
Now you understand how mindfulness and meditation helps with symptoms of bipolar disorder, why not incorporate these practices into your life? You have a lot to gain, including a stronger sense of clarity and agency. Just remember that practicing mindfulness is a management strategy, not a treatment, and shouldn’t replace any medication or treatment you’ve already been prescribed.
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