Can meditation help you identify oncoming mania or depression and give you time to intervene and avoid the worst? I’ve found that it can.
Mindfulness meditation is simply being still and noticing things. Feelings in the body and thoughts that come up in the mind are noted without harsh judgment or fixation. They don’t need to be dismissed, but are instead observed and reflected on for their effect on one’s wellbeing.
Being conscious of the nature of thoughts and the sensations in the body can be a powerful tool in predicting mood changes.
Although episodes of hypomania, mania, or depression may feel like they come roaring out of nowhere, only to be noticed after one is deep into the negative episode and some damage has already been done, this is rarely the case. Usually there are some physical or mental warning signs that signal the brewing mood change.
Careful focused attention, or meditation, can help one to discover these subtle changes, and to act on them when they arise.
I have discovered that discomfort in my gut, and thoughts of new investments or fantasies of new roles or careers usually signal that my bipolar disorder is about to become assertive. Interests suddenly change, and all too often these changes are met with huge purchases and irrational behavior as my careful planning is thrown away and manic obsession settles in. Or the gut cramps and effort and thought slowly become too hard to be worth it as depression takes hold.
After establishing a regular meditation practice I began to notice these consistent precursors in the run-up to inconsistent behavior. Suddenly, instead of being surprised and defeated, I could use my rational thought to plan for, or avoid, grandiosity, the lack of impulse control, even dangerous behavior.
When I discovered these signals, I took the information to my doctor and we devised some interventions to avoid the worst of each episode. These include taking something to help me sleep, locking away my credit cards, avoiding that wine with dinner, or not shooting out emails or social posts to friends, co-workers and bosses that I thought were crucial but instead made no sense and set me up for a lot of explanation later.
I remember one time I became obsessed with Univision and started calling in sick to stay home and watch TV novelas even though I don’t speak Spanish. Then I bought a bunch of jerseys from Mexican soccer teams. I ended up in unfamiliar neighborhoods obsessed with meeting Latina women before the drug use began and I began to act in very self-destructive ways. It took a terrible crash, and fortunate intervention by family and friends to bring me back. But damage was done.
Today, as I meditate I begin to recognize when the thoughts and plans don’t make sense and the spending begins. I can immediately turn to family, friends and my doctor to hold me back and keep me grounded and sane.
While I still have my reason I can act in rational and preventative ways to skirt the danger and defeat of bipolar disorder.
It takes some time. First, through careful self-study, therapy, and mediation you must learn your early warning signs. Then you need to set up a plan of what to do when you notice them. Finally, you must carefully spend time in silence everyday and carefully monitor your thoughts, actions, and the feelings in your body. When the warning signs appear you can feel them as they begin and then take action to stay healthy.
I have been meditating this way for over a decade, and combined with the medication I take the practice has helped keep me stable and out of trouble. I haven’t been hospitalized since 2006, and I’ve been able to hold a good job and start a family. All of this was unimaginable before I started meditating.
One of the advantages of having bipolar disorder for such a long time is the realization that the run-up to unpredictable behavior is often predictable. Meditation can help you notice the beginning of each episode. Then you can act skillfully and stay stable and well.