How Yoga Helped Me Manage My Bipolar Disorder
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
Hey Readers! I am so grateful that you are here! I am going to really open myself up and share some personal information in today's post. I am an individual with bipolar disorder. I also have ADHD, but that is a topic for another blog post! This is very new territory for me to share this part of me, and to be honest, it feels very vulnerable. But, yoga has been incredibly therapeutic for managing my bipolar disorder, so I would like to share my experience and journey in case it helps someone else with bipolar disorder.
My Journey with Bipolar Disorder
Let me rewind the clock back to 2005 when I received my bipolar diagnosis. At that time, I was in my early 20's teaching high school science and math at a local private school. My mom had just recently been diagnosed with Melanoma (which she unfortunately lost the battle with in 2008). I was living at home because I was a brand new teacher, and I was broke, broke, broke. Other than dealing with oncologists and cancer treatments for my Mom, my life was pretty good at this time. I was happy, healthy, and I really enjoyed my job and my students.
But, without rhyme or reason, I suddenly stopped sleeping at night. I wasn't stressed or anxious at all. My mind would just not stop thinking. The thoughts going through my mind were not stressful at all. Rather, the thoughts were more benign in nature - the kind of thoughts I would have loved to entertain if it wasn't in the middle of the night, such as time travel, outer space, and human physiology. But each thought would initiate like ten other random thoughts that were semi-related, making my mind a cacophony of arbitrary ideas. After nine, yes nine, nights of very little sleep, I told my family what was going on. They recommended that I go see my primary care doctor to see if something hormonal or otherwise was causing the lack of sleep. Never once did I think bipolar was going to ultimately be the outcome of this visit.
My primary care doctor checked my blood, heart, and other things, only to find that everything was appropriate for my age. So, they recommended that I go see a psychiatrist to see if something was happening mentally. I humored them and went to see my first psychiatrist. It was a long appointment full of answering questions verbally and on questionnaires, and it ultimately ended with me receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Honestly, I was shocked. No one in my family had ever been given that diagnosis, and it certainly was not something I expected to come out of this visit. But, here I was anyways, in spite of my shock and disbelief. I was put on a medication known as Seroquel, which immediately fixed my sleeping issue. I had to see the psychiatrist pretty regularly in the beginning - if memory serves me right, I think I saw him weekly or every other week at first.
What follows after the initial diagnosis was several years of trying many different medications, all with varying and severe side effects, in an attempt to get my mind balanced. And y'all, the side effects SUCKED! There really is no other way to put it. Many bipolar medications cause extreme weight gain, and I was no exception to this rule. I gained about 90 pounds my first couple of years as a result of the medicines, and this was tough for me, as I had always been relatively thin and healthy. Other side effects included tingling hands, extreme sleepiness during the day, kidney issues, massive anxiety, uncontrollable muscle twitches, and mental dullness. But, eventually, my doctor and I found the right medication and the right dosage for my body. And, while the medication helped me to sleep and calmed some of my tendencies towards mania, it didn't help one hundred percent.
Looking back now, I totally see my bipolar behaviors throughout my entire life. Bipolar disorder can come with extreme lows and extreme highs. For me, the "lows" were pretty rare, while the "highs" (referred to as "mania") were much more common for me. I have always been a "high-energy" person with a big, sometimes loud, personality. My "highs," or mania, also brought on incredibly impulsive, quick-tempered, and paranoid thinking behaviors. I could, and did, spend hundreds to thousands of dollars in single shopping trips, without batting an eye. I actually accrued a ton of credit card debt in my early 20's as a result of this impulsive spending. I would also get super upset, without any warning, over seemingly nothing, and I would have huge reactions to small problems. For example, one time I was making toast in the morning and the toaster was not working. Not a big deal, right? Well, I flipped out! I threw the toaster against the wall, screaming and yelling at it. It was like once I was triggered by something, I had no control over my reaction. And my paranoid thinking (e.g. "everyone is against me" type of thoughts) used to exhaust me after being in social situations! And all of these behaviors continued to occur while I was on medication, albeit they just occurred with much less frequency than before.
I knew I needed something in addition to my medication/psychiatrist routine. My medication absolutely helps me, so please don't misconstrue. I have tried several times through the years to come off medication entirely, usually with my doctor's help. And every time, after about 3 weeks off the medication, my mania rears its head, causing me to become paranoid, sleep-deprived, quick-tempered, and impulsive. But, my medication alone was not helping me manage all the facets of being bipolar.
I have always been a super active person, and health and fitness have always been very important to me. I was involved with team and individual sports all throughout my childhood. I have also been a runner for most of my life, and I completed many half marathons (and one full marathon) over the years. I remained physically active even after receiving my bipolar diagnosis, engaging in running, hiking, and weight-lifting. But, none of my physical pursuits seemed to help with my bipolar symptoms. However, that all changed in 2015 when I found yoga. At that time, I was working as a speech therapist at a middle school, so I spent a lot of my time on Pinterest looking for therapy ideas. I started seeing pictures of yoga poses and sequences pop up on my home feed on Pinterest. The people in the pictures always looked so relaxed and peaceful to me, so I decided to start playing around with a little yoga at home. I went to REI and got my first yoga mat, and I just started experimenting on my yoga mat after work. I also read blogs, articles, and books about practicing yoga. I learned how important both the breath and mental awareness are to the practice of yoga. I would get on my yoga mat and try different postures, moving in/out of each posture with my breath.
The effects of yoga on my mental state were nearly immediate for me. My impulsivity, bursts of anger, and paranoia slowly started to occur with less frequency. I absolutely LOVED my yoga time, and I would actually crave time on my yoga mat daily. In 2018, I hit a plateau with my home yoga practice. I did not know where to go with the poses or how to progress what my body had learned to do. So, I looked for a local yoga studio to join. I found Breathe Yoga Atlanta (BYA) in Cumming, GA (the BEST yoga studio, in my opinion), and that has been my home yoga studio ever since.
So, what is yoga anyways? Yoga is a mind-body practice that originated in India thousands of years ago. Today, yoga spans a wide spectrum of possibilities, with some types of yoga involving a lot of physical movement, and other types involving no physical movement at all. In the western hemisphere, the yoga that is typically practiced is known as Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga uses a combination of breathing practices (known as pranayama), physical postures and sequences (known as asana), and meditative practices.
How Yoga Helped Me
When I first joined BYA, I attended several yoga classes per week, including hot yoga, all-levels flow, restorative, and gentle yoga. The effects of yoga on my mental health only intensified after practicing at a studio with experienced teachers and other yogis.
One of the main tenets of yoga is awareness without judgement. Yoga taught me how to to notice what was going on inside of my body and mind, and what was happening outside of me, without reacting or labeling the situation as bad/good. I stopped judging my bipolar as something "bad" or "wrong," and instead, I learned that my bipolar disorder is simply an innate part of who I am. Yoga taught me to work with my bipolar disorder, not against it. Through yoga, I was able to notice my internal signals and sensations with more clarity. I learned to recognize when I was getting triggered long before I reacted explosively. And when I started to recognize that I was becoming dysregulated (e.g. frustrated, angry, etc.), I could use my strategies of deep breathing, awareness, and movement that I had learned through yoga to calm myself down.
My reactivity to frustrating situations also began to dwindle away. When small problems would arise during my day, I met them with grace and ease. Yoga taught me how to ebb and flow with all the variables that may come my way. It taught me how to hold steady, even when things felt chaotic around, or within, me. Yoga also taught me that I have control over my nervous system and the way I respond to situations. Before starting yoga, when I was triggered by something, I felt like my reaction was completely out of my control. I could feel my rational brain slipping away, and my emotional brain would simply take over. I would scream, yell, throw things, and say nasty things to the people around me. And, the scary thing was, I felt trapped inside this crazy, rage-filled place, almost like I was watching myself from outside of me. I didn't even recognize the voice coming out of my mouth. And, when a person with bipolar disorder gets into that headspace, there really isn't anything that can be said or done. It just has to pass. And this is partly because our bipolar brains convince us of one narrative that we believe to be real, even though it isn't actually reality. But, through yoga, I learned how to slow down those reactions, so my rational brain would have time to catch up and join the conversation in my mind. Once my rational brain came online, I could listen to the perspectives of other people much more easily and think much more logically.
My impulsivity also decreased tremendously through my yoga practice. I started to save my money rather than spend it. My social communication also improved. My impulsivity would sometimes make it hard for me to focus during a conversation, and I would often interrupt people when they were talking. Yoga taught me how to slow down, breathe, and focus on each moment with nonjudgmental awareness. I was able to pause and notice facial expressions on other people. I could also slow down enough to more carefully choose my words when speaking, which made social communication much easier.
I also stopped feeling paranoid and instead felt strong and confident in who I was, regardless of what any person might hypothetically think of me. Yoga helped me to reconnect with my true self. Bipolar meds can often make it difficult to be yourself fully and truly because they are designed to dampen some of the very parts that make you, you. But, finding a connection to your genuine self is super important in a yoga practice. In fact, yoga is essentially about tapping into your true nature. Yoga taught me to honor my mind and body, and to love myself even when it felt hard to do so.
Yoga also helped me to create space in my physical and mental body through the asana and pranayama practices, so I could better take in new situations and challenges. My yoga practice taught me how to soften areas that felt tight or constricted in my body and mind, which helped me to soften up in my daily life. Instead of getting frustrated and tense from unexpected situations, I could let go and find the joy and humor in those moments. Through the practice of balance work, yoga taught me how to remain steady even when things seemed to be spiraling into chaos around, or within, me. Yoga taught me how to breathe, even when doing something really difficult, such as holding a challenging yoga pose. And this transferred into my daily life.
Now, I currently practice yoga daily in some form or fashion. Even if all I do is sit and breathe for five minutes, I find some time everyday to get on my mat. My yoga practice changes day-to-day, and the type of yoga I do (e.g. gentle, flow, etc.) is based on how I feel physically, mentally, and emotionally on a given day. Before beginning my yoga practice, I used to be afraid of my bipolar disorder. I never knew when it was going to flare up and turn me into someone I wasn't. I spent years hating my bipolar disorder, wishing it would just go away. But through my yoga practice, I learned that part of what makes me Jackie IS my bipolar disorder. By nature, I am a hyper, energetic, fast-moving kind of gal. And that's just the way it is. I am who I am, bipolar and all.
I will forever be grateful for my personal yoga practice. Yoga helped, and continues to help, me navigate life with bipolar disorder better than anything else I have tried. Yes, I still take my medicine daily, and I still see my psychiatrist regularly. As I stated earlier, coming off bipolar medication is not an option for me. I also still remain very physically active by running, hiking, paddleboarding, and practicing barre, in addition to my yoga practice. I truly believe that it's the combination of yoga, medicine, and my other physical pursuits that have helped me to manage my bipolar disorder in the best way possible. Has it always been an easy road? No way. There have been many periods of mania and medication adjustments through the years, and I would predict that there might be more to come. But ever since I began my yoga practice in 2015, I have only had one manic episode, and that episode came about because my doctor and I were trying to change my medicine (which ultimately did not work out). There is no cure for bipolar disorder as of the date of this post. Bipolar is definitely not easy to live with. I still have days where my bipolar is a little more "active." But, my yoga practice has helped me tremendously with identifying those signals and responding appropriately. I truly believe that yoga helped the "Jackie" return to me.
I hope this information is helpful to someone who might be struggling in the same way I was. I do not believe in being preachy or acting like I have the answer for truth and healing because I definitely do not. All I can do is share my personal journey in the hopes that someone may benefit from this information. If you are struggling with your bipolar symptoms, definitely talk to your doctor. Be honest about what you are feeling. And consider trying yoga. It might be the perfect addition to your treatment routine. Thanks for reading!
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of, and experience with, neuroscience, anatomy, bipolar disorder, and yoga. If you have specific questions about your bipolar disorder, please consult with your physician or psychiatrist. If you are interested in private yoga sessions with me, Jackie, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my weekly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT