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?

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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.

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?

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?

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.

Balance – A Meditation

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There’s a lot of pressure from all around us to work, be productive, be healthy, be great, be creative, be fantastic, and to do, do, do! It’s no wonder we end up feeling stressed out, depressed, exhausted, and irritable.

What if we were to look at life as a series of choices? For example, when working we make a conscious choice to stop for a while to play. Likewise, when being productive we make a conscious choice to take time to rest. Furthermore, while we eat our fruits and vegetables, we also have a piece of cake every once in a while.

Balance is the key, but you have to choose to pick up the key and use it. Otherwise the door to a joyous and fulfilling life may remain closed to you.

Today I will pick up the key of balance and I will know peace.

Acceptance – A Meditation

There are many things we have no control over: people, places, things, events, the weather and time passing. This can be frustrating, depressing, and even scary.

There are many things we do have control over: how healthy we eat, how much we exercise, how we respond to life events, to people, places and things, and how well we take care of our health – physically, mentally and spiritually – by going to the doctor, taking our meds, meditating and/or praying.

The key is to accept the things we cannot change and to change the things we can. Acceptance does not mean we have to like them. It simply means we need to acknowledge they are reality and we do not have control over them.

Acceptance does not mean we accept unacceptable behavior from others. We have the right to defend ourselves. We are not meant to be doormats, but we must realize that ultimately, we have no control over the behavior of others, only our own.

Acceptance means letting go of tension, worry, and fear. Acceptance is the relaxing of our shoulders, the unclenching of our fists, the releasing of our jaw, the softening of our eyes, and the slowing of our breath. Today, I will accept the things I cannot change and I will know peace.