Category Archives: mindfulness

Using mindfulness as a tool in recovery

A few months ago I was stretched thin and not handling anxiety well. I wasn’t sleeping, my mind was constantly racing, I couldn’t concentrate at work, I was (at that time) barely scraping by in my last graduate class, and in working on my book, I was reliving all the devastation I went through in the last year. All of that together meant I was always worried about my performance – or lack thereof. Then, I started worrying about worrying.

Though I have anxiety medicine to help with these feelings I use it sparingly, partly because it is addictive and partly because my treatment goal is to be on as few medications as possible. Always looking for alternative coping mechanisms, my therapist suggested I enroll in a mindfulness group over the summer. I’ve heard mindfulness is a great therapeutic tool to handle stress so I decided to give it a shot.

I was attracted to this particular group mostly because the curriculum didn’t center around meditation. Though I’ve always been curious about meditation, it also seemed to me like a bunch of mumbo jumbo for hippies. So when the facilitator interviewed me to see if I would be a good candidate, I was intrigued when she said mindfulness is not meditation. Meditation is just a tool to become mindful, but it is only one tool of many out there.

She also commented that many people misconstrue mindfulness with reaching a state of relaxation when in fact the true intent is to just be aware of what you are feeling in that moment without judgement. Though she did state the more you practice mindfulness the more relaxing it becomes, she was also realistic in the sense that as a beginner you will find it uncomfortable and frustrating and you will most certainly find your mind darting every which way. If my intent was to reach relaxation then I was not going to be an ideal candidate for the program. However, if I was willing to just observe my emotions and practice using different tools to divert my attention from negative thoughts, then I might actually find it useful.

Her candidness and honesty sold me. I didn’t feel like I was walking into some misguided spiritual practice. All I needed to do was be open to learning and committed to practicing. I felt more comfortable knowing it was okay that I wouldn’t always be successful and that of the eight tools she would teach, if even one of them proved to be helpful then at least I found a healthy way of dealing with anxiety instead of cutting or pulling out my hair.

So far, I’ve completed two of the eight classes. The first week we focused on deep breathing exercises and this past week we learned about body scanning. What helps me buy into the tools (which is probably intentional on the part of the facilitator) is that she explains the science of how each tool positively impacts our brains. Like how deep breathing engages the Vegas nerves in our back and stomach that release serotonin and dopamine into the body (aka feel good neurons). Though I consider myself spiritual, it isn’t in the traditional sense you might think. So, if you try to convince me to do something for the sake of being connected to a higher being or even to my inner self, I’ll probably brush it off. Actually, I might roll my eyes.

Of the two tools I’ve learned so far, there is no doubt I prefer body scanning over deep breathing, which is essentially bringing awareness to every part of your body and feeling the sensations that awareness brings. I will say, though, that bringing attention to the breath has been more useful in moments where I feel anxious.

Last week I had severe chest pain, numbness in my body, and difficulty breathing – a side effect of a medication I was taking (it’s really difficult figuring out the right combination of meds that work for you). When the panic set in, I took a couple of deep breaths and the only thing I focused on was inhaling one, two, three and exhaling one, two, three. My heartbeat slowed and I found it easier to breathe as time went on. I know during that moment, body scanning would have done me no good. I understand now why we learn so many different tools – because some may be more helpful depending on the circumstances.

Compared to deep breathing, body scanning is more time intensive but it is so helpful at night when laying in bed – the time when my mind is constantly darting back and forth between the events that happened that day, what I didn’t get done, and what I still need to accomplish. It can take me hours to fall asleep or, as is the case many nights, I sleep very light. With body scanning, I have found that I actually do reach a state of relaxation and it’s easier for me to fall asleep quickly. Perhaps because of that, it’s why I like it so much more.

I won’t say I love every part of the mindfulness workshop, but I do feel it’s important to give alternative methods of treatment a chance. As someone who believes people are over-medicated it’s important to me to make sure I’m not solely relying on that to get better. We’ll see what these next few weeks bring but I’m definitely looking forward to learning more.

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Filed under anxiety, healing, health, meditation, mental health, mindfulness, tools

6 apps that can help your mental health

Although the use of technology in mental health treatment is relatively new there are many apps out there that can be a complement to individual therapy. These apps are especially useful for those who don’t seek out help because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

Over the last few months my psychiatrist has encouraged me to try out a lot of different apps as a way of helping me sleep and to manage my stress and anxiety. For me, lack of sleep is a trigger for hypomanic episodes while high levels of stress and anxiety can spiral me into a depressive episode. Here are the ones I’ve found to be most helpful to my own situation.

ReliefLink. This is a self-harm and suicide prevention app that helps you track your moods, tweets you regular affirmations, and helps you make a safety plan. It also puts you in touch with nearby resources, including support groups, therapists, and treatment services. I especially love the daily affirmations and the relaxation exercises you can use to help distract yourself.

Deep Sleep with Andrew Johnson. Sleep is crucial to your mental health. This particular app guides you through muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises in 20 minute intervals. You can set how many times you want the exercises to repeat and whether you want to wake up or continue sleeping. My psychiatrist encouraged me to use this particular app when I had insomnia and recurring nightmares and night sweats. While I don’t have to use Deep Sleep as often now it was really effective in helping me get to sleep and stay asleep through the night.

Personal Zen. Warning: this app is highly addictive! Personal zen is a game that trains your mind to focus away from the negative and towards the positive. Not only is it fun but studies show it’s effective at reducing stress and boosting well-being. Essentially you trace a trail as quickly and precisely as you can. Get in enough turns and your “mellow yellow” mood can turn into laid back.

HeadSpace. This apps teaches mindfulness and meditation techniques to train your mind. You can test it out through their “Take 10” program which teaches you the basics of meditation in 10 minute exercises. If you want access to more content then you’ll have to subscribe but it’s well worth it! There are hundreds of exercises and you can choose ones specific to your area of interest. For example, happiness, relationships, or work performance. Many treatment programs are beginning to incorporate the practice of mindfulness as a complement to individual therapy.

Optimism. This app is super easy to use and was really helpful to me in understanding my mental health. It’s mostly intended for people with depression and bipolar disorder but anyone can use it as a self-help tool to maintain good health. In this app, you’re basically keeping a journal of everything that can affect your mind (e.g. triggers, symptoms, notes, stay well strategies). By charting these over time you can begin to identify patterns in your life and even some of the negative influences impacting your mind. What I love the most about this app is that it notifies you based on your responses if you’re potentially headed towards depression or mania. If you are, then it will remind you to take action and will even give you coping cards like “go take a 15 minute walk” or “call a friend”.

Talkspace Therapy. The frustrating part of setting up appointments with a therapist or psychiatrist is the amount of time you actually have to wait to get in. When I was in self-harm mode they told me it would be at least two days to see a psychiatrist (not good). Then, after my stay in the psychiatric unit, I couldn’t get into my new therapist for two months. Although I haven’t personally used Talkspace Therapy I nevertheless wanted to highlight it here for those who don’t seek help out of fear, judgment, and stigma. By using this app you can get guidance and advice from licensed therapists immediately. It’s confidential AND it’s free!

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Filed under health, meditation, mental health, mindfulness, sleep, suicide prevention, therapy

6 ways to support a friend or family member with a mental illness

Friends and family play an important role in my recovery. For the most part, people want to help but may find that starting a conversation with me about my mental illness is hard to do. They may feel uncomfortable or unsure of what to do or say, which is normal. Over the last couple of months I’ve had a lot of interactions with friends and family related to my mental health and what I’ve learned is that it’s often the small things you do or say that make the biggest difference. Based on my own experiences, I’ve compiled six ways you can help a friend or family member with a mental illness (including me!):

Reach out and take the lead. Include them in everyday plans like going to the movies, dinner, or on a hike. If they resist ask again or offer to pick them up. When suffering from depression, I am more likely to isolate and alienate myself from friends. I end up spending more time alone than I do around other people. However, being around people and engaged in activities is important to recovery. Sometimes we just need a little push to get out the door.

Don’t just talk about their illness. Mental health is only one part of their life. Don’t define them by their illness by only talking about this one subject. Talk to them like you’ve always talked to them. While I need to talk about my mental health I also need to talk about everyday things like work, school, a funny story I heard, or the boy I like.

Educate yourself. If you feel awkward or uncomfortable or have no idea what to say, the best thing you can do is read about the mental illness. Not just medical information but books and articles by people who live with that mental illness. Doing so will provide understanding and insight and perhaps make you feel more comfortable talking about it to them. Two books that have helped me are The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon and Crazy by Amy Reed.

Don’t avoid the issue. If they come to talk to you about their mental health, don’t change the subject. If you ask someone how they are feeling the response may not always be “Good” or “Fine”. Sometimes it may be deeply depressing to listen to but doing just that, listening, can make them feel better. This is particularly true if they are in self-harm or crisis mode. In moments where I’ve been overwhelmed and tempted to self-harm again I’ve called or texted my friend Jesse to distract me. I know I can be honest with him and that he won’t avoid the issue, which helps me be open in the first place.

Be mindful about the comments you make as they can come off as insensitive,  particularly if they are in a vulnerable state of mind. A few comments that have hurt me are: “We all go through times like these,” and “You were depressing to be around; it brought me down,” and “I wish you would have told me so I didn’t feel alone,” and “My situation is more dire and important than yours.” It would have been more helpful to hear, “I may not fully understand how you’re feeling but I am here for you and I want to help,” or “I’m glad you’re getting the treatment you need,” or “You’re important to me. I love you. I’m here for you.” Some people may be in a more dire situation than others but everyone’s difficulties are relevant. Be careful not to belittle their situation.

Show support but don’t be intrusive. Ask what you can do to help them right now. This could be cooking meals, doing an activity together, or just letting them know you’re there to talk. Be patient if they don’t respond right away. If they want to talk they will. Sending a card or email to let them know you are thinking about them every once in a while is a gentle reminder you are there for them if they ever need you. Sometimes just knowing is enough.

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Filed under advice, bipolar II, mental health, mental illness, mindfulness, recovery