Finding Comfort Amidst Change – A Meditation

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Change is difficult for us sometimes.  Often we avoid it or fight it because it scares us. There is a sense of safety in maintaining the status quo even if it is unhealthy.

When positive change occurs it can bring on stress even though the change is good for us.  Sitting with the anxiety, feeling it run through our veins, through our heart, circle our mind again and again, letting it exhale through our breath can eventually allow us to become more comfortable with the stress. Like anything or anyone, the more time we really pay attention to the details of it, I mean really, really observe every nuance of something, the less threatening it will seem.

Today I will sit with my discomfort and get to know it by observing everything about it, including where I feel it in my body, my mind, and my spirit, and I will know peace.

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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?

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?

5 Tips on How to Love Yourself When You Have a Mental Illness

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This morning, my middle schooler brought to my attention a quote she heard on social media:

“Can anyone say they truly love themselves?”

I asked her if she loved herself and to my relief she said, yes, except for how tall she is. 🙂  Then she asked me if I loved myself.  My breath caught in my throat as years of self-hatred flashed before my eyes, and I hesitated for half a second before giving her my best answer:  I love my true self, but I don’t like everything that I do.

I prayed she didn’t notice my hesitation, because I want to lead by example and instill a good sense of self-worth within her, but apparently, and thankfully, she already has that despite my poor self-esteem and overall dissatisfaction with my appearance and behaviors.

I went on to explain to her that our “true selves,” our spiritual selves, are different from our human selves, and that I really love my true self, the pure, perfect side of me.  It is the human side, the ill side, that is hard to like sometimes.  She looked at me like I was crazy, because, well, she’s only twelve and I was getting way too philosophical for her.  🙂

Our conversation got me thinking though, about how much I dislike myself because of my mental illness, its symptoms and subsequent behaviors – the depression that leads to crying and laying in bed all day, the irritability that leads to losing my temper with the kids, the anxiety that leads to extra work for my husband to do.  All of these things surmount to loads of guilt and self-hatred, thereby perpetuating the symptoms which caused the behaviors in the first place.

How do those of us with mental illness combat this destructive thinking; disrupt this negative thought cycle?

How do we come to love ourselves despite our mental illnesses?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Change our thoughts – I know, I know – easier said than done.  A long time ago, I even wrote about how impossible it can be, (How Positive Thinking Can Be a Crock) but try replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.  For example, instead of thinking, “I’m such a loser,” say to yourself, “I am a kind, thoughtful person with friends who enjoy my company.”  If you can’t bring yourself to think of positive thoughts, that is ok.  Don’t stress over it.  Just being aware of the negative ones is a good start.
  2. Keep a thought journal and write down any negative thoughts you have that day in one column.  In a second column challenge those thoughts.  For example, when my daughter said she didn’t like the fact that she is taller than everyone else, I said, “Even though being tall is an advantage when playing volleyball?”  She said, “Oh yeah, I guess I do like being tall then.”
  3. Make a list of positive attributes in your journal.  If you have a hard time coming up with things, ask friends or family members for ideas.  Keep adding to the list and refer to it often.
  4. Practice, practice, practice.  Just like learning any new skill or playing a sport, you won’t get good at this over night.  It will take lots of repetition before it becomes more automatic.  I have been keeping a thought journal for almost two months now and I still have a hard time catching myself in the midst of self-criticism, but this brings me to the final tip:
  5. Don’t give up!  Keep trying.  Have faith that it will work and that your joy and peace of mind are worth it.

And remember:

You are not your mental illness.

Your true self is perfect.

What to Do About Bipolar Disorder and Stress

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Bipolar and Stress

We all have stress. Can’t avoid it. Can’t get rid of it. Might as well learn how to deal with it. Right? Wrong. Let’s make a list of our stressors. Pretty long list, eh? I bet we can avoid or get rid of at least a few of them if we really wanted to. It may take some finagling, help from others and a lot of courage, but I bet we can do it.

The problem is we may be too worried about what other people think or hurting someone’s feelings or feeling too guilty to make the changes necessary to reduce our stress. We may be too proud to ask others for help or too embarrassed to let others see how we really are, so we put on our masks and act like everything is fine, thereby increasing our stress.

For those of us with bipolar disorder, this is especially dangerous because stress can trigger mood episodes. According to an article on PsychCentral, “people with bipolar disorder are more prone to stress than the average population.”

Along with the danger of triggering mood episodes, chronic stress can over-produce stress hormones resulting in “chemical imbalances and physical changes in parts of the brain already vulnerable due to bipolar disorder. The prefrontal cortex shrinks, leading to emotional instability, self-regulation problems, and mood changes.”

So, you can see how important it is to reduce the amount of stress in your life! My doctor told me just that and my response was: “Yeah, right! I’ll just get rid of my kids then.”

There are some stressors we obviously cannot eliminate. However, I have made changes to reduce my stress, even with my kids like making them do more for themselves and not saying yes to every activity they want to do.

I go to support group meetings for people in recovery from drugs and alcohol. In one meeting, there is this one lady in particular who causes me a lot of anxiety whenever I see her. So, I now avoid that meeting even though I like the other people who go there. The stress is not worth it to me. There are too many other meetings I can go to where I don’t feel stressed.

I say “no” to seventy-five percent of the parties I am invited to because of my social anxiety. I know I offend some people because I say no so much, but I don’t care. I used to force myself to go and then get panic attacks while there and sick with anxiety and migraines for days afterwards. I have to eliminate the stress that I can from my life in order to stay balanced and healthy.

Let’s not forget about positive stressors, too. A recent weekend trip to see friends, while fun, left me feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. I came home and crashed for two days straight just to mentally and physically recuperate from lack of sleep and over-stimulation. Fortunately, my husband helped around the house so I could do this.

Before I understood how bipolar works, I would have continued trying to do everything for and with the kids until I crashed into yet another severe depression. I also would have returned from that weekend trip and went on with my week like any “normal” person would have. Only unlike a “normal person,” by week’s end, I would have been in full manic irritability and dissociation. This would have lasted for a week or two followed by a depressive episode lasting for who knows how long. Now, I know good self-care is the key to managing my stress.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to play shrinky-dink with my brain, so

My basic plan when dealing with stress is this:

  • Identify my stressors
  • Get rid of them when possible (e.g., say, “No.”)
  • Avoid them when possible (e.g., remove self from situation)
  • Ask for help
  • Practice good self-care (eat well, sleep well, take meds, have routine)
  • This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – when I am stressed I write.  (Guess you know how I am feeling right now.) 😉

What helps you deal with the stress in your life?

Unexpected Moments- A Meditation

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So many things in life come to us unexpected – sickness, heartache, disappointments. Many good things come as well like surprises, laughter, and joy. In each unexpected moment lies the essence of life. These are the moments that cannot be planned or constructed in any way. These moments are gifted to us by the sheer forward propulsion of living, of being alive.

When entrapped in the snare of mental illness, we are still within an unexpected moment of life – a moment of sickness. We are still in the forward propulsion of living because mental illness is not static. It is a dynamic phenomenon that must be ridden out like a surfer on an ocean wave. With treatment and time, a solution may be but a moment away.

In those unanticipated moments of darkness and despair, I will keep an open mind so that I may hear an unexpected message of hope and I will know peace.

Going with the Flow – A Meditation

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Like a raft floating down river, allowing the current to take it along nature’s path, life has a natural flow for us. To fight it is like trying to paddle the raft up-stream. It will be difficult, tiring, and non-productive.

If we let life lead us along the natural flow of events as they happen, we will have more energy and peace. We will experience a new freedom in not having to fight against the will of others and the situations of things we can’t control.

We will know the true meaning of serenity in loving others right where they are and just as they are whether we agree with what they are doing or what they are like or not.

We will clearly see the ways in which we can change things about ourselves and the situations we are in, for these are the only things over which we have any power.

Today, I will go with the flow of life and let people and things be as they will. I will accept that the only thing I can change is me and I will know peace.