In mindfulness, you learn to see thoughts as just thoughts rather than as facts or situations you must react to. Thoughts commonly come and go in the mind, and if you treat all thoughts as true and assign them all the same level of importance, you’re more prone to feel down in the midst of negative or self-judgmental thoughts and highly elated in the midst of positive thoughts. This rollercoaster ride of emotions and energy often seems to trace the same path as bipolar disorder’s ups and downs.
By practicing mindfulness, you notice that both types of thoughts are just thoughts, and you don’t need to react to them or even give them your full attention. After all, thoughts arise merely out of your perception of reality or are borne out of your own thought process. You’re not required to give them the full status of being true. Mindfulness involves watching thoughts and stepping back from them – like watching clouds passing through the sky. This enables you to become a disinterested observer, and thoughts lose some of their control over your emotions.
Switching modes of mind
Mindfulness also emphasizes learning to switch modes of mind. Normally you operate in “doing mode,” which is all about setting goals and trying to achieve them. Many people get stuck in this mode and never realize they have the option of shifting to “being mode,” which is all about allowing and accepting things just as they are, rather than working hard to change them.
Being mode is particularly helpful in the realm of emotions. If you’re feeling sad and don’t accept it, you can end up fighting to change the experience. This can lead to a deeper feeling of sadness and trigger a negative thought cycle. By being with the experience and mindfully accepting the emotion, you allow the feeling to dissipate in its own time.
Mindfulness looks like a potentially effective way of managing bipolar disorder, especially the depressive pole, which may be the most difficult to treat with medication alone. Mindfulness exercises and meditations are useful for people with bipolar disorder (manic depression) because mindfulness:
- Decreases the relapse rate for depression.
- Reduces stress and anxiety, which contribute significantly to the onset of both mania and depression and may worsen the course of the illness.
- Improves a person’s ability to manage thoughts and feelings and increases awareness of the way the person tends to internalize external stimuli.
Mindfulness exercises include guided body scan meditation, mindful walking, mindfulness of breath, and mindfulness of thoughts and feelings.