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?
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.