I started working meditation into my daily routine back in February, mostly of the mindfulness variety. I’m going to just say this up-front: Meditation is not a replacement for therapy, medication or both.
I’ve been meditating all summer, but since I stopped taking my mood stabilizer (long story I don’t want to go into, not a good idea for anyone without the guidance of a doctor), my moods are out of control. Meditation would have helped with the anxiety caused by my OCD, but exposure response prevention, guided by a therapist, was the only thing that actually helped me deal with all of the hang-ups my obsessions and intrusive thoughts had caused. Even with medication + meditation, I would probably still be pretty homebound without therapy.
I’m not recommending anyone replace effective mental health treatment with meditation. I do think it can be a useful tool for some people to add to the other coping skills we learn in therapy.
It’s a good idea to check in with your therapist before beginning meditation practice, so if there is a potential for problems (e.g., some people have experienced depersonalization after long periods of meditation, and some find it triggers PTSD or panic) they can discuss it with you.
I have found that for me, it helps smooth the edges of my mood disorder and anxiety. For both my OCD and my bipolar disorder, I’m on the lowest doses of medication I could get away with. This keeps me on a somewhat even keel most of the time, but symptoms still spring up here and there. The coping skills I learned in therapy help me rein them in once I’m already having issues, but mindfulness meditation helps to head them off before I need to bust out the coping skills at all.
For example, when my thoughts begin to race, I can sit down in the corner and run through an exercise that helps to derail them. Sometimes it means my brain calms down. Sometimes it speeds back up and I have to try again in a couple of hours. But it helps either way. Same when I am having major anxiety, or feeling very disconnected from everything. And sometimes, I spot symptoms beginning to unfold when I sit down to meditate and find I can’t quiet my mind, either because of intrusive thoughts I can’t shake or an inner monologue that won’t shut up. I can start taking steps to head issues off then instead of waiting until they burst into my daily life.
I have tried a few different mindfulness apps for beginners, and figured I’d give a quick rundown of each, with what I liked and what I didn’t. If you do choose to try mindfulness (with your psych team’s guidance), maybe one of these will help!
Stop, Breathe & Think
Availability: iOS, Android and Web
I love this app for a couple of reasons. The first is that it also has a mood tracker that follows both your mental and physical state and the emotions you’re struggling with. This is super useful for me when I use it (and I’m trying to be better about using it). The second is that it has a TON of different guided meditations in different lengths, from Mindful Breathing and Body Scan, to Engaging Your Senses (which I’ve found very helpful when I am feeling disconnected), to Mindful Walk and Nature Sounds. There are also meditations like Great Compassion and Healing Sadness, which deal with specific goals instead of more general meditation.
Many of the meditations are free, although you do have to pay a small amount for some packages (usually $1.99 to $2.99 for five additional meditations). I found the package I paid for to be worth it, but you don’t need to buy anything to get value from the app. The other downside is that you do need to be able to connect to the internet to use the app. Still, even with those downsides, this one is my favorite, and I’ve found it really helpful for derailing both OCD-fueled anxiety and bipolar racing thoughts.
Availability: iOS, Android, Kindle, Web
I’m pretty new to Headspace, but I do really enjoy it so far. I’m still working on the Foundation series, which is a really good introduction to the process of meditating. I think I will find the meditations more useful and enjoyable once I get to some of the other series, particularly Health and Performance, but I do like how the Foundation sessions include focusing both on your breath and on your surroundings, and it’s pretty easy to scrape out 10 minutes to meditate. I don’t see Headspace replacing SB&T, though, especially without the additional mood-tracking tools.
However, one area Headspace excels is the supplementary materials, such as the blog. A lot of the articles are about sports and fitness, but a lot of them are also about psychological topics, such as finding motivation, beating road rage, and how music affects the mind. Headspace also has a user forum and a podcast. So where SB&T is bare bones meditation and mood tracking, Headspace adds lifestyle and fitness “lifehack”-style advice to that mix. For a subscription, you can also supplement the free meditations with unlimited access to a bunch of other stuff, but it was a little steep at $12.95 per month.
Availability: iOS, Android, Web, Chromecast, Apple TV
Like Headspace, Calm has several series of meditations that start at the basics for beginners. It incorporates soundtracks of birds, babbling streams, wind in the grass, etc. The sessions are all about 10 minutes long. I have only used the “7 Days of Calm” introduction series so far, because most of the rest require a paid subscription. I liked it, but the woman who leads these meditations has a very robotic quality to her voice that I find distracting; I much prefer the “real” voices at SB&T and Headspace.
There are a handful of guided meditations that are free, as is unguided meditation (just the nature sounds). There is a daily meditation exercise included in the cost of a subscription, which is on par with the Headspace prices. However, if you mainly want some nice background nature sounds to play while listening to the guided meditations from SB&T or Headspace, this one is great. I’ve also found the nature motif really nice when I’m scrambling to meet a deadline and feeling scattered. The white noise helps me stay focused, and I can take 20 seconds here or there to listen to the soundtrack and breathe.
I also like Relax Melodies, but I haven’t used any of their guided meditations. I just find being able to mix and match the nature sounds really useful when I need white noise to sleep.
Photo by Moyan_Brenn