I received a phone call the other day. It was quite possibly one of the sweetest calls I will ever receive, but after I spoke to her I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I was on a path that leads to panic attack and that’s just not something I want to deal with right now. I was tempted to medicate myself to help me calm down and feel better. In the end I decided not to take anything. I don’t want to jump to a pill or a bottle every time I feel a negative emotion, or an overwhelming positive emotion. It’s important to feel. It’s part of being human. The trick is to be able to experience those emotions in a safe space and in a way that helps keep them under your control.
People with bipolar disorder are generally bad at emotional regulation, even between episodes. We can get caught up in an emotion and just let it build on itself. Reasoning in these types of situations is incredibly difficult. It’s like trying to stop an avalanche with a snow shovel. Even when we try to regulate our emotions after the fact, it’s more difficult than it is for neurotypicals. That’s why it can seem easier to self-medicate when it comes to regulating negative emotions. You just want it to stop. Drugs and alcohol provide very tempting solutions.
But I still want to be able to feel. I want to grieve. We both deserve it. As hard as it is to experience such a harsh, seemingly negative emotion, it’s part of life. We use these experiences and these feelings to learn, to grow, to form relationships, to live. Not being able to control these emotions somehow cheapens the experience.
Fortunately for me, I’ve had the benefit of working with a therapist familiar with mindfulness meditation. It turns out that when we’re told to regulate our emotions (ex. in a therapy or laboratory setting) we can actually do it. I realize that it sounds like a terrible idea to have someone to tell you to calm down, but with the right approach, it can help.
Since the early aughts, psychiatry has been implementing mindfulness meditation as a tool to help with mental health. It has roots in Buddhist meditation, but has been adapted to help patients relieve stress, treat depression and – drum roll – aid in mood regulation in bipolar disorder.
Mindfulness meditation lets you step back and take a look at your situation almost as if you are outside of it. It can be difficult at first because it does take focus to practice, but it pays off. The idea is to become an objective observer of what is happening inside your mind and your body, not to try to control it. You take note of everything that you are feeling, whether it’s anger or a stomach ache.
Do not make judgements about what you are feeling.
This is the key. If you are angry or sad, don’t think “I’m feeling angry and I shouldn’t.” It’s “I’m feeling angry.” When you simply recognize the emotion, it’s easier to let it be. You can still experience it, but it loses the vice-grip it had on you before. This is a very powerful tool.
Here are some resources for you to check it out:
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Photo credit: Benjamin Balázs