2.6% of the US population have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and it is the sixth leading cause of disability on a global scale (World Health Organization).
This complex disorder is incurable, but may be managed with bipolar meditation.
How does Bipolar manifest itself?
Also called manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder is characterized by sudden and intense shifts in mood, energy and activity levels and significantly impacts an individuals ability to perform daily tasks.
A person can shift from extreme highs (“manic episodes” of feeling extremely up, high, energized and elated) to extreme lows (“depressive episodes” of sadness, hopelessness, despair and despondency).
In the most common (“Bipolar 1”) type of the disorder, manic episodes can last up to 1 week and depressive episodes up to 2 weeks.
Manic symptoms include: feeling extremely “up”; having excessive energy; increased activity levels; feeling “wired”; sleep disturbances; rapid speech, jumping from topic to topic; agitation and irritability; racing thoughts; and risky behavior.
Depressive symptoms include:
feelings of sadness, emptiness and hopelessness; extremely low energy; sleep disturbances; decreased activity levels; inability to enjoy life; disruption in eating habits; being stuck in a worry loop; lack of focus; forgetfulness; suicidal thoughts.
It is possible to have both a manic and a depressive episode all at once.
While there is no cure for the disorder, a recent study by Harvard University’s Dr. Sara Lazar, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice, found that mindfulness-based meditation may be an effective treatment option for improving cognitive functioning in affected individuals.
Here are several ways Bipolar meditation can turn such a debilitating disorder around:
1. Meditation boosts feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. Serotonin is the brain’s mood stabilizing neurotransmitter. Scientists are still debating whether depression is caused by low serotonin levels or whether depression leads to low serotonin levels (thus complicating and prolonging depression). Either way, low serotonin levels contribute to bipolar disorder. Meditation helps manage stress, which is the first crucial step in restoring healthy serotonin levels. In bipolar patients, healthy serotonin levels smooth out manic episodes and lessen depressive episodes for more balanced moods. Nature’s feel-good neurotransmitters, endorphins and dopamine, help lessen the depressive episodes, and because the brain is better able to balance them to healthy levels, they also manage manic episodes.
2. Meditation relaxes the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain’s stress center. Its job is to keep us safe and so it triggers the fight-or-flight response to any physical or emotional threat. Physical threats are most often very real, but emotional threats essentially originate in the imagination (“what if (x) goes horribly wrong?” “what if everybody laughs at me?” “what if she leaves me?”). A buildup of stress hormones has been linked to bipolar disorder (one reason that the disorder seems to strike otherwise healthy 40- to 50-year-olds – they’re chronically stressed). Meditation actually shrinks the amygdala over time, making the fight-or-flight response less intense when it does happen, and lessening its occurrence.
3. Meditation increases activity in the left prefrontal cortex – the orchestrator of thought and decision-making, and behavior modulator. Meditators are happier, calmer, more compassionate, and more in control of their impulses and emotional responses than non-meditators.
4. Meditation also balances and synchronizes activity in the two brain hemispheres which has been linked to greater cognitive functioning, enhanced creativity and better problem solving and decision-making.
In essence, bipolar meditation creates an environment within the brain that is hostile to the disorder itself. In time, the bipolar patient can develop a powerful toolkit of skills and techniques including self-soothing, being able to ride out emotional waves, and impulse regulation. Over time, the brain literally changes both physically and functionally. It reorganizes and upgrades itself, and creates a state of equilibrium that helps the bipolar patient cope with the world in healthy ways.