4 Steps to Finding Joy and Happiness in Your Bipolar Life

05/05/2015 08:27 am ET | Updated May 05, 2016
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It's no secret that living with bipolar disorder can be tough. Even with medications and psychotherapy, symptoms don't always dissipate. So just how do you live a full and happy life despite this chronic condition? The key lies in the practice of a simple concept called mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the act of living life in the present moment and accepting all that it entails --bipolar symptoms included. Practicing mindfulness is like rebooting a computer. It reprograms the brain, thus changing the way we react to life in the wake of a mental illness. Through this, we learn to see bipolar disorder for what it is -- incorrectly wired neurons misfiring in the brain.

This may sound confusing, but it's really quite simple. We are not our symptoms. So why should we let them define us? Mindfulness gives us the power to view these symptoms as an observer rather than an active participant.

I like to look at it like this: Symptoms are like a flooding river. If you get too close, you may fall in. On the other hand, if you observe from a distance, there is no danger of being swept away.

That's the mindful viewpoint.

Here are four ways you can use mindfulness to find joy and happiness in your bipolar life.

1. Shift your focus from self-judgement to self-compassion.

It's easy to judge ourselves. But what good does that do? Practicing self-compassion is about treating ourselves the way we would treat anyone we love. It's about radical acceptance of who we are and of the illness that we are struggling with.

Having compassion for ourselves (and others) is a fundamental concept of mindfulness. This isn't easy when mania, depression, and irrational thoughts about self are all a part of the illness. We feel like we can't or don't deserve to feel better.

It is essential to remember that we as humans are not perfect. We didn't ask to have a psychiatric disorder. It is what it is -- a hand that life dealt us.

Be kind and gentle with yourself. Accept bipolar thoughts and feelings for what they are. When negative thoughts kick in, notice them and remind yourself that thoughts and emotions are just the firing of neurons -- nothing more.

You can try saying something like this:

"Oh, I'm having feelings of depression (or mania) right now. I don't like it, but I can accept it and move on. I don't need to judge my feelings."

2. Learn your autopilot scripts (and how they perpetuate symptoms).

Have you ever heard the term "monkey mind?" Mindfulness teachers refer to this as autopilot thinking. Autopilot is when the mind takes off on its own -- replaying the past or worrying about the future. In other words, chattering away like a monkey.

Autopilot isn't necessarily good or bad. It's just the way the mind works. However, it can prevent us from experiencing joy and happiness when autopilot scripts become a part of and exacerbate symptoms.

That's because autopilot drives our thinking patterns, emotional responses, and often our behaviors. As a result, manic or depressive symptoms worsen.

The key to freeing yourself from this path is to learn to recognize these patterns. Simply put, know the scripts that play in your head. And when they begin, bring your attention back to the present moment.

The easiest way to begin this process is to keep a journal. This allows us to see the strings of thoughts that come back over and over again. Don't try to change them. Just be aware of them. Look for the patterns behind the scripts. The more you practice, the better you will get.

3. Stay present with bipolar symptoms through mindfulness itself.

Our natural reaction to bipolar symptoms is to try to push them away. And why wouldn't we? No one wants to experience something that feels unpleasant or out of control.

The problem with this seemingly logical reaction is that it makes symptoms worse. It's like a mental version of tug-of-war. When we resist, the pull only becomes stronger.

This is where mindfulness comes into play. With acceptance comes the ability to be fully present with bipolar thoughts and emotions. This can be very hard at first, but the end result is truly life changing.

To do this, we must commit to taking a new approach to symptom management. Rather than resisting, we make the decision to let go and be fully present with whatever mood we are experiencing. By giving bipolar emotions permission to be present, we are no longer fighting them. The result is that symptoms manifest and then pass on. Like everything, symptoms are impermanent. They arise and pass. But, we must allow them to fully arise - so that they can pass.

4. Make meditation a priority in your daily routine -- even during mood episodes.

Meditation gives us the ability to focus our attention where we want it. It is literally the opposite of autopilot thinking. By practicing meditation, we learn to be present with bipolar symptoms rather than trying to make them go away.

This concept can seem confusing, but it works. That's because through meditation, we experience thoughts as an observer. Rather than being carried away, we stay present in the reality of the moment at hand. This teaches us to manage symptoms in a completely different way.

The key to this is to make meditation a routine -- even when we don't feel like it. Block off 10 minutes a day in a calming, low traffic area. Set a timer and commit to the practice. (For more information on how to meditate, please read this blog post.)

William R. Marchand, M.D., is a mindfulness teacher, board-certified psychiatrist and neuroscientist. He is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry, and adjunct assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Additionally, he is the Associate Chief of Mental Health and Chief of Psychiatry at the George. E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has years of experience treating bipolar disorder, researching the neurobiology of mood and anxiety disorders, and teaching mindfulness. His personal mindfulness practice is in the Soto Zen tradition, in which he is an ordained monk. He is the author of Mindfulness for Bipolar Disorder: How Mindfulness and Neuroscience Can Help You Manage Your Bipolar Symptoms and Depression and Bipolar Disorder: Your Guide to Recovery