Is a Daily Routine or An Unstructured Lifestyle Better for Our Mental Health?

When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder my life was in complete chaos. I had a job that didn’t have set hours, with responsibilities and a caseload that changed on a daily basis. Plus, I had three small children with a husband who worked varying hours, including nights and weekends. My days were anything but routine.

Fast forward five years later, and I am a stay-at-home mom with a set routine of getting up at the same time every morning to get the kids off to school, work on house chores during the day as my illness allows me, rest in the afternoon, be there for the kids when they get home from school and in the evening for school and sport events. I also take my medications on a routine schedule and go to bed around the same time every night.

Researchers have demonstrated that routines can help those with bipolar disorder by balancing their sleep/wake cycles. Routines can also help those with anxiety by making daily activities more manageable and predictable. Routines help us get more stuff done by keeping us on task, thus providing more time for rest and relaxation, which is also good for mental health. And routines give us a sense of control over our lives since we get to choose what we include in them.

I do find that as my illness symptoms creep back into my life, there is sometimes the need for flexibility in my routine. For example, when I am fatigued from depression, I may spend more time in bed and less time on chores.

However, after a few days or a week, my routine usually kicks back in and I am at least doing a little bit each day. While I might not feel motivated to engage in my routine, my routine motivates me to get things done, because it is what I am used to doing. It doesn’t feel right to not do it.

What about you?  Are routines good for your mental health or do you prefer an unstructured lifestyle?

Education is Key – A Meditation

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When we have a mental illness, it’s imperative to learn all we can about it in order to understand it, because understanding leads to the best collaboration with healthcare professionals when making decisions for our care and medication and treatment choices. Understanding leads to the best advocacy for ourselves when dealing with employers, family, and friends who may or may not get how mental illness affects our performance and behaviors. Understanding leads to self-compassion and patience during times when we are feeling low and can’t do what we want. Knowing it is part of the disease and not part of our character can help save our self-esteem and self-worth.

Today, I will ask my healthcare professional for, or research on my own, two sources to learn something I didn’t already know about my mental illness.

To the Worrier – A Meditation

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Worrying is a natural part of life. There isn’t one adult person who hasn’t worried about something at some point in his or her life. It is when the worry starts affecting your mental health by way of anxiety and depression, and your physical health (your sleeping, your eating, ulcers, etc.) that it becomes a problem.

We live in a time-based reality. Past, present, and future. Worrying is a past and future minded activity. We are either thinking about something in the past that has already happened, or thinking about something in the future that hasn’t happened yet (and sometimes about something in the future that may or may not even happen.)

This leaves the present time as the only place for us to escape our incessant worrying. We do this by engaging in activities that distract us and keeping our focus on the task at hand; by paying close attention to our surroundings at all times – really listen to the birds tweet, fully take in the grass’ green and the sky’s blue; listen to each word of the song on the radio, each note that is played instead of daydreaming about your worries while driving in the car.

This is called being “mindful”, and it keeps us out of past and future time and out of worrying. The mind doesn’t like it and will try to pull you back into past and future, but you can fight it by consciously choosing to stay in the present moment by never doing anything on “auto-pilot” again. Feel whatever you do with all of your senses and you will be in mindfulness.

Today, I will practice mindfulness or present-time living, and I will know freedom from worry and anxiety, even if only for brief moments.

Mind, Body, Spirit – A Meditation

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Mind, body, and spirit are all important parts of a person. When one is ill the others suffer as well. Sometimes those of us with mental illness become so focused on our mind and its problems that we forget to address body and spirit issues as well; issues that could help improve the mind.

What do we do each day to take care of mind, body, and spirit. Are we taking our medications as prescribed? Using positive cognitive skills? Exposing ourselves to healthy media and relationships? Are we eating well-balanced meals? Staying away from drugs and alcohol? Exercising? Do we take time for spiritual practice? Prayer? Meditation? Yoga? Mindfulness? Time alone with nature?

Today, I will pick one area – mind, body, or spirit – and research or think of one action I can take to improve my health in this area. Then I will begin this action within the week.

On Being Consistent – A Meditation

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So often with mental illness being consistent in our daily tasks and responsibilities is difficult. We want to shower everyday, but it is not always manageable due to severe depression. We want to finish the tasks we start, however, mania keeps us frantic and unfocused. Showing up for family events and dates with friends can be daunting when anxiety takes hold and won’t let go.

Yes, being consistent, “a man of your word,” so to speak, is not always possible when you have a mental illness. Guess what? That is ok. Really, it is, because having a mental illness is not a choice; it’s not a matter of will power, or want, or preference, or feeling like doing this or that or not. It is a medical condition that directly affects the centers in our brains responsible for decision-making, motivation, concentration, and emotional regulation, just to name a few.

Today, I will remind myself that my mental illness is not a choice, but a disease I did not ask for nor that I want, and the effect it has on the consistency of my behaviors is sometimes more than I can control. I will be kind to myself and cut myself some slack when I do not live up to my own expectations consistently.

How to Avoid Post Holiday Winter Blues

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After all of the fun and excitement of the holidays are behind us, how can we avoid the let down that comes so quickly into the new year?

Personally, I was feeling depressed one measley day after Christmas!  After a month of adventurous shopping to find just the right gifts to thrill of getting our first ever REAL Christmas tree, the holiday season seems like it is going to be hard for me to let go of this year.  It feels as if letting go of the season itself means letting go of the joy of the season as well.

I suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a mental illness where one’s mood state significantly changes from season to season.  In the winter months, my mood has a tendency towards depression.  There are ways, however, I can fight the depression that comes from both post holiday blues and SAD.

One thing I can do is keep some of my seasonal decorations up well into the cold months of February.  Maybe not Santa and his reindeer, but snowmen and snowflakes make for fun winter decor.

In an effort to extend the social benefits of holiday parties, I could make it a point to host small get-togethers once a month in January and February.  I must remember that social isolation can increase my depression.

I could send out Valentine’s and give small Valentine’s Day gifts (to select individuals), like I did with Christmas cards and gifts, to stay in a holiday-type spirit throughout winter.

Many people, myself included, tend to go to church only on special occasions like Christmas.  Continuing to attend service every Sunday can keep that feeling of spirituality and connectedness to something greater than myself alive. I plan to do this; I’ve already declared it as a new year resolution.

Some people volunteer or donate money or gifts around the holidays. We all know the recipients of our time, talents and treasures need them year-round, so why not continue giving well past the holiday season?  It will be good for them and us, too!

Finally, and specifically for those with SAD, light therapy can help chase depression away. I have used this in the past and it has been very beneficial for me.  Be sure to talk with your doctor before trying this, however, especially if you have bipolar, because it can trigger mania or mixed states if used improperly.

What are some other things you do or you can come up with to do to avoid those post holiday and winter blues?

3 Easy Ways to Practice Gratitude for Better Mental Health

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This week, in the United States, we are celebrating Thanksgiving Day. It is meant to be a day spent with family, being grateful for all we have in life. Often times, however, it is a stressful week filled with mad-dashes to crowded grocery stores, hours of cleaning and cooking, homes filled with obnoxious relatives, and the start of over-indulgent spending sprees as Christmas shopping begins the day after Thanksgiving, infamously dubbed as “Black Friday.”

It can also be an extra lonely and depressing day for those who have lost loved ones around this time of year or for those who do not have anyone with whom to celebrate or share a Thanksgiving Day meal.

In both scenarios, scientific evidence shows that practicing gratitude can improve a person’s mental health, in terms of both anxiety and depression. Now, this doesn’t mean that being grateful one day or one week a year is going to make a difference. It is something that has to been done consistently over time.

Why Gratitude is Good for our Mental Health

The evidence is in:  Across three experiments by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough (2003,) they found evidence that practicing gratitude leads to positive emotional and interpersonal outcomes.  A 2006 study in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam Veterans who practiced gratitude had lower rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Robert Emmons, the world’s leading researcher on gratitude, has this to say:

  • “Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present. It magnifies positive emotions.
  • Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness. There’s even recent evidence, including a 2008 study by psychologist Alex Wood in the Journal of Research in Personality, showing that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression and protect people from stress.
  • Grateful people are more stress resistant. There’s a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity, and suffering, if people have a grateful disposition, they’ll recover more quickly.  I believe gratitude gives people a perspective from which they can interpret negative life events and help them guard against post-traumatic stress and lasting anxiety.
  • Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping you get to where you are right now.

Once you start to recognize the contributions that other people have made to your life—once you realize that other people have seen the value in you—you can transform the way you see yourself.”

 

3 Easy Ways to Start Practicing Gratitude Today

  1. The easiest way to start practicing gratitude is to wake up each morning and think of three things for which you are grateful. Name them off in your head and spend just a moment thinking about each one, and then go about your day.  Or think of them at night before you go to sleep, pondering each one as you drift off into dreamland.
  2. One of the most effective ways to practice gratitude, according to Emmons, is to keep a gratitude journal. Write five things for which you are grateful in it once a week.
  3. Finally, act grateful. Don’t just think it and write it, but say it to others, smile, say thank you, give freely in gratitude, write thank you notes, give hugs. A grateful spirit is contagious and attractive. People will be drawn to you, and you will know a new peace and calm in your life.

Personally, I am grateful for this opportunity to write about gratitude. I feel good just writing about it for you. I am grateful that you are there to read it.

I am also grateful for this week and all that it holds for me. I am grateful for my day of rest today and the busyness of tomorrow and Thursday. I am grateful for my new holiday outfit and my dog and the quiet in my home at the moment.

What are you grateful for?