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Our connections with others are vital for our flourishing. In fact, according to the Harvard Grant Study, the longest-running study on adult development, our relationships may be the single most important predictor of our happiness and of aging well. Sounds simple enough, right? Cultivate happy and healthy relationships to thrive in life.
If only it were that easy. Needless to say, relationships can be tough. All relationships, romantic and otherwise, have their challenges. After all, you’re bringing two unique individuals together, which can create all sorts of interesting, exciting, and beautiful, yet complex, and sometimes frustrating, situations.
Now throw in a mood disorder to the mix and see what might happen.
Those of you who follow us regularly know that we write about a variety of positive psychology approaches to help strengthen our closest connections. In this post, we would like to acknowledge that while each relationship is different and has its own set of difficulties, those living with a mood disorder face an extra challenge.
We recently had the opportunity to talk with George Hofmann, a friend of ours who has bipolar disorder. A loving husband and father, George wanted to share his story about living with a mood disorder and what has worked for him to keep his most important relationships healthy and to help him live a fulfilling life. He hopes that sharing his story will help others who may also be struggling to manage a mood disorder.
His personal experiences of living with bipolar disorder for the majority of his life inspired him to write Practicing Mental Illness: Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods. In the book, he vividly recounts his story and the steps he took to help manage the symptoms of his mood disorder to promote his well-being and connect better with his wife and daughter:
I spent years in and out of hospitals. Even when the medication kicked in and led to some stability, life was extremely unsatisfying. I started meditating and it allowed me to better handle the disease, have a family and a child. My doctor who prescribed the medication believes that my meditation, movement, and meaningful work were the most powerful interventions in managing my bipolar disorder, even more effective than the medication.
Practicing Mental Illness is a riveting account of George’s personal challenges and the emotional highs and lows of his struggle with bipolar disorder, which led to a series of hospitalizations over the years. His story shows his incredible resilience and how he actively works to find meaning in his daily life and build connection with others.
His authenticity has the power to help so many others who may be struggling to manage a mood disorder. First and foremost, George emphasizes how integral it is to find a good psychiatrist you are comfortable with and feel you can completely trust. He is grateful to his excellent psychiatrist whom he’s been working with for more than a dozen years. After much trial and error, he and his doctor have found the right medication to help manage his mood disorder.
In addition, George has worked hard on taking specific steps to manage his symptoms before they erupt into a full-blown episode. In particular, he focuses on three daily practices: meditation, movement, and meaningful work,
George was drawn to meditation years before it became popular in mainstream culture. In fact, he fantasized about becoming a modern-day monk since he found almost immediate refuge in meditating. It allowed him to mindfully experience the present moment, rather than being hijacked by his thoughts as he was prone to be:
I realized that full attention was the key ingredient that helped me move into movement and meaningful work. It wasn’t about stress relief, nor was it goal oriented. It was always about being in the moment. It’s the thoughts from the past or trauma that lead to guilt or anxiety. Often those thoughts are just downright thoughts.
Getting out of our head and into our body can be powerful in managing our moods and preventing a downward spiral. Full immersion in the moment is essential, he says:
Every episode of anxiety happens in the body before the mind gets carried away. I use meditation to notice these things. If you meditate twenty minutes a day you can notice that particular pain in the shoulder or uneasy feeling in the gut that is always there before an episode. You can then intervene by meeting with your therapist.
Working With Our Loved Ones to Manage Our Moods
While managing a mood disorder takes a lot of work, we don’t have to tough it out alone. In addition to our psychiatrist, we can work with our loved ones to help us navigate what can be an arduous journey.
George is thankful to his supportive wife who helps him identify the red flags before a full-blown episode occurs. They work in tandem, focusing their attention on the present moment to notice small things in his behavior that are often a precursor to manic episodes. “In relationships your partner can learn to notice specific behavior changes in you, and when meditating you can become more aware of these warning signs as well,” he says.
By working together as a team, it’s easier to be more cooperative with your partner in accepting help when needed and doing interventions before things get out of control, explains George. “If the person notices the changes in their body, they will be more open to cooperate with their partner because it gives them a sense of agency.”
With mindful attention on your body, you can better notice things like perseveration, for example, which can be an early warning sign of a mood change, he tells us.
In addition to working closely with a trusted psychiatrist, George recommends discussing the following three practices with your doctor to help manage mood disorder symptoms:
Do something that has a point of focus and keep returning to it, he says. “I use my breath and just keep breathing. I discourage people from doing guided meditations because you need a point of focus to return to over and over.” He emphasizes the importance of good posture. “Sit up straight in a chair. Breathe naturally. Close your eyes. Place your attention, that thing that moves around in your field of awareness, on your breath feeling the contraction of your belly.”
Every time your mind wanders (and it will) keep returning to that point of focus. A few minutes is all you will be able to do in the beginning, he says. However, with practice, you will be able to go for longer stretches. Build up to 20 minutes a day.
“Focus on the feelings in the body. Start with your breath. Feel the movement in your limbs whether you’re walking briskly, running, or taking a casual morning stroll. Regardless of the pace, pay attention to your body and what you’re doing. No music or other distractions,” he says.
Instead, focus deeply on the movement within your body. Notice what’s happening within your body and in your environment by using all of your senses. See what’s in front of you. Perhaps it’s the vibrant green of the trees, the lovely chirping of the birds, or the warmth of the sun on your skin that draws your attention. Actively work to be in the present environment. Full immersion is key.
3. Meaningful Work
Find meaningful work daily, says George. “When I write, I do it without music in the background so I can totally focus on my writing.” You might not get the meaning you need out of your day-to-day job and that’s OK, he explains. “You can bring meaning to other daily activities or simple chores like washing the dishes or chopping vegetables by turning everything into a practice. And by being totally focused on your work.”
Find something productive to do daily, he recommends. If you gravitate toward music, for example, it may be practicing scales on the piano. Or if you’re crafty, like George, your attention could be focused on building model ships. Physical labor is something he finds particularly helpful. Others may find what they need in adding numbers or solving puzzles.
Whatever it is, find some sort of work that you can bring your full attention to. It may be your current job or a hobby. Regardless of what type of job you have, whether you’re a supermarket clerk or heart surgeon, all work is meaningful because it pulls you outside of yourself and into a community, he says.
Connect With Community
“The whole point of work is to get out of ourselves and become part of a community and to draw strength from that community. Work is what connects us,” says George.
These three practices that George describes may help anyone to improve their well-being, regardless of whether they have a mood disorder. Research has found that having a daily meditation practice, regularly moving our bodies, and finding meaning in our lives are all associated with greater physical and mental health.
“By being productive in society, being a positive influence on others, and contributing to their well-being, we can all improve our mental health,” George concluded.