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Why Mindfulness Doesn’t Help My Bipolar Disorder

Mindfulness doesn’t help my bipolar disorder. I’m sorry; I know advocates aren’t supposed to say that kind of thing. I know we’re all supposed to get behind the new, fashionable therapies and tell everyone to do them (but heaven forbid we do the same with psychiatry) but this is one that I think has some major holes in it, particularly for people with serious mental illness. Please understand, mindfulness as a therapy might work for you but here’s why mindfulness doesn’t help my bipolar disorder at all.

What Is Mindfulness?

Essentially, mindfulness is sitting in the moment. That’s it. It’s about not worrying about the future or the past. It’s about allowing whatever emotions or thoughts that occur, simply happen, without judgement, and then allowing them to float away. The theory is, if we simply look at the here and now, all the pain of the future and the past won’t hurt us, for the time being, anyway.

And if we live mindfully, all the time, then this manner of thinking becomes natural. When you eat dinner you are in the moment, enjoying each mouthful and, perhaps, are thankful for the food. When you talk with a friend, you are really present and aren’t thinking about what you will say next but, rather, are truly listening, in the moment, to what the person is trying to tell you. And so on.

And I don’t have a problem with any of this, in theory.

It just so happens that all this mindfulness does not one whit for my bipolar.

Why Doesn’t Mindfulness Help My Bipolar?

Mindfulness doesn't help my bipolar disorder. Mindfulness may be a hot new therapy, but as for me and my bipolar, mindfulness doesn't help. Why? Read this.It’s like this. If you’re being tortured by the past or are dreading the future, then this therapy might be very beneficial for you as it teaches you how to let that go (Mindfulness Can Calm Anxiety). If you judge your current thoughts and are troubled by them this may help as well. And while I am, as much as anyone, a victim of worrying about the past and future, this isn’t what causes the pain of my bipolar disorder.

The pain of my bipolar disorder is in the now. The pain cannot be reduced by sitting with my emotions and not judging them because that’s not where the pain is coming from. The pain is coming from bipolar disorder and not a psychological construct. Moreover, much of the bipolar pain is physical and simply sitting in the now of physical pain does nothing to reduce it (Treating Physical Pain in Bipolar: Neuropathic Pain).

It’s like this: if someone were hitting you over the head with a baseball bat, sitting mindfully, in the present moment, and letting your feelings and thoughts go without judgement doesn’t change the impact of the bat or the pain that it causes. My bipolar (bipolar depression, specifically) is like that baseball bat.

Stop Telling Me that Mindfulness Is the New Be-All and End-All of Therapies

A few years ago, and to some extent even today, the new, hot therapy for pretty much everything was cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). And I will, certainly, say that this is a very effective therapy for many people and I wholeheartedly recommend it. But just because it was in fashion, doesn’t mean that it could help everyone and just because mindfulness and mindfulness meditation is now in fashion doesn’t mean that it can help everyone, either.

In my experience from a group that taught mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, the people who this therapy helped the most were those with more minor cases of depression and those suffering with stress and anxiety. This does not surprise me in the least. If I had to pick people for mindfulness classes, those are the people I would pick.

And even if you have a very serious version of bipolar disorder, I can’t say that mindfulness will, or won’t, work for you. Only trying it will answer that question. As much as medications are mainly a process of guessing and checking so are therapies.

But my point is, mindfulness doesn’t help my bipolar disorder. And that’s okay.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or Google+ or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at Bipolar Burble, her blog.

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar Burble, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

27 thoughts on “Why Mindfulness Doesn’t Help My Bipolar Disorder”

  1. I do a lot of meditation, it has helped my social anxiety, its helped my ADHD, it has helped my OCD, but that element of BiPolar is still there. BiPolar is very much a “in the moment” kind of thing, its not sane or rational, its like a tiny electrical storm.

    While meditating can help me distance my self from it, it doesn’t stop it.

    I wouldn’t discourage anyone from meditation / mindfulness, but I would discourage them from thinking it will help them go off their bipolar meds and destroy their life.

    With that said, medical CBD does a better job for me than anything else. The fact people with BiPolar disorder are still expected to be on epileptic seizures medication while people with epileptic seizures are getting access to CBD is really unfair.

  2. Thank you for this article Natasha. I’m here so I can understand a family member’s bi-polar disorder. The baseball bat rings particularly true and I notice the difficulty of meditation even when this person is in the room. I can’t imagine the difficulty for the person actually suffering from bi-polar disorder.

    As far as meditation and psychotherapy fads go (e.g. CBT as you mentioned), I want to suggest that bi-polar disorder itself may be a fad, from a geneological standpoint. I don’t mean to say you don’t have bi-polar disease, but it’s interesting that 10,000 and even 100,000 years ago bi-polar disorder was not as prevalent as it is now. Same goes for chronic diseases like diabetes. Seems the interaction between ourselves and the environment has opened a can of worms psychologically.

    If that’s the case, I’m very optimistic about treatment and preventive measures because we can begin identifying things that trigger these erratic emotions. Again, this is all speculative and I’d appreciate your thoughts on the matter. How have you managed since writing this article?

  3. As a practitioner of mindfulness meditation, I think some “fake news” has been pushed out about what mindfulness meditation is, and what it can do. If you’re in the storm of a manic episode, can you meditate for 20 minutes and get over it? Probably not.

    But in a euthymic moment, if you start a daily practice of 20 minutes per day in a group or with the Headspace app, you will start to notice a differenct.

    Just like it took a bit to titrate on your meds so they (I hope for your sake) started doing what they were supposed to do, it takes a while for mindfulness meditation to do what it’s supposed to do.

    After all, according go this Harvard study, among others: https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain mindfulness is actually working to change your brain, fix those connections, add to the volume of your grey matter, quiet the flight-or-fight response of the amygdala, and create a mind that works a lot better than one in the sickness of bipolar disorder.

    It’s not meant as a quick fix, or something to draw upon in the throes of an episode, but as a daily or consistent practice that begins to fix you.

    Will it work 100% for everyone? No, but neither do meds and therapy.

    For those committed to a more holistic view of wellness, it’s worked miracles.

  4. This is an important article. Mindfulness and CBT help me tremendously when I’m going through psychological difficulties. I have bipolar 2 and also some pretty maladaptive thought patterns and self-destructive patterns. I think it can be helpful for hypomania for sure, since irritability, anxiety, and impulsivity are the side effects. But depression? Well, the Buddhist principles of “this, too, is impermanent” helps some, and accepting the depression instead of judging it or fighting it, that helps, but it doesn’t ease the depression as meditation can ease hypomania symptoms. Eating well and sleeping and exercising and even talking to someone are sometimes more beneficial. It helps me a bit, Id say, but I’m with you that it isn’t the cure-all. I think a Buddhist/mindfulness practice as a way of life can put stuff in place for some, it has for me, but it’s a bit more of a personal philosophy rather than a treatment for depression.

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