Author: George Hofmann | www.practicingmentalillness.com
It’s possible to establish a practice that enables you to predict, prevent and manage episodes of depression or mania, but it takes some work.
I write this piece for International Self-Care Day, but I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of self-care. I think our lives are best lived when we get out of ourselves and pay attention to, and help in any way we can, others. There’s so much inward focus in our methods of dealing with bipolar disorder that I fear we only see ourselves and what we need.
But then, of course, we have to be well enough in the first place to be able to help anyone else. That’s why I use practices in meditation, movement and meaningful work to help me handle bipolar disorder.
In the simplest form I choose a point of focus, be it my breath in meditation, a stretch in my back in exercise, or the vegetables sautéing in the pan in cooking, and place my attention on it. When this is done with full focus, dismissing distractions of thoughts as they intrude, one can learn a lot about their moods, like where they are right now and where they don’t have to be.
While focus and attention are thought to be functions of the mind, it’s fully entering into the sensations in the body that will offer clues about mood changes. Mania and depression are as much physical experiences as they are mental, and it’s likely that the first signals that an episode is brewing will be found in the body and not the mind.
When I meditate each day, I spend time scanning my body, noticing areas of tension, discomfort or pain. There may be a twinge in my shoulder or a tightness in my jaw or abdomen. When I’m through meditating I write down what I’ve noticed in my body in a journal. I then plot these notes against a mood chart.
It was almost immediately apparent that certain bodily sensations were noticed before my mood turned dark, and others before I became a bit too exuberant. Now, when I notice these feelings in my body I’m aware that my mood is changing and I need to act before the mood turns dangerous.
I’ve worked out a plan with my doctor and wife of things to do when these alarms in the body go off. Depending on the depth and suddenness of the mood change, things that range from guarding my sleep to taking a medication prescribed for just this purpose will be appropriate.
The beauty of this practice is that often just knowing a mood change is coming is enough to act in subtle ways and stay well. The mere awareness of simmering depression or mania can make them go away.
Now not everyone gets into meditation. I’ve found that attentive movement, something rhythmic like walking or swimming or running, in silence, of course, can enable one to focus on changes in the body and changes in mood as effectively.
Focused, meaningful work, especially something physical that requires great concentration yields the same benefits. Hobbies work just fine.
To become adept at reading oncoming moods just takes a little practice with an activity that enables you to notice what is going on within you. Then you can turn this attention to notice the things that are going on around you. This makes you available for the most meaningful work of all – work that serves others.
George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available wherever books are sold.
After a series of hospitalizations and a lot of bad behavior, George Hofmann managed to overcome the worst of bipolar disorder by adding practices in focused attention to the usual therapies of medicine and talk. He works to show others with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder how to do the same. He maintains the site “Practicing Mental Illness,” which promotes meditation, movement and meaningful work as keys to growth and healing. George has conducted workshops on meditation for individuals, families, support groups, healthcare professionals and corporations. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.