An Example of What Bipolar Disorder is Like

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At least as far back as high school, I’ve dealt with severe depression, anxiety, and mood changes, but it wasn’t until this past year that I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The diagnosis didn’t lead to a cure for the disorder since there isn’t one, but it’s allowed me to notice the symptoms and triggers for the manic or depressive episodes that define the disease. Seeking professional help for it has also led to being on medication that I, in all honesty, should have been on decades ago.

Unfortunately, we’re still getting the medications worked out. The types of drugs and the amount vary for everyone, and we haven’t quite found the right mix for me yet, despite going as far as doing genetic testing to try to figure out the best combinations. The medication has certainly helped to a certain degree, but I’m still having manic and depressive episodes that are severe enough to interrupt my normal day-to-day activities.

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This past week has been a rough one, and also a perfect example of what my bipolar disorder is like. Therefore, I thought this would be a good opportunity to write about what I experience every time I go through a manic and depressive episode.

Everything started out fine this past week, and I even managed to complete nearly a full week at work (which has been rare for me lately). Then the hypomania kicked in.

Hypomania is different from mania, although it can also lead to full-blown mania. Bipolar mania tends to get out of control, sometimes even requiring hospitalizations. Mania lasts for a week or more, can lead to terrible decisions (think out-of-control spending, increased drinking and drug use, and making poor sexual choices) and is something that, thankfully, I’ve only experienced twice in my life.

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Lasting for just a few days however, hypomania actually feels great much of the time. During the hypomanic days that I experienced this past week, I was incredibly productive, highly motivated, excited about everything, talkative (which is strange for me, because I’m usually really quiet), and didn’t sleep as much. I experience hypomania frequently, and it always leads to a period of depression.

It’s a strange feeling to be hypomanic. One the one hand, it’s wonderful, because I no longer feel depressed, I have less anxiety, and I can get so much done. On the other hand, however, I know that it can lead to an actual manic episode. I have trouble knowing when I’m hypomanic, which is why I’m thankful for my boyfriend, who has taken the time to get familiar with the disorder so that he can help recognize the symptoms even when I can’t.

So, for two to three days, I felt great. And then yesterday happened.

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Yesterday I woke up feeling shattered. I didn’t want to get out of bed, my anxiety was about as high as it could get, and I felt worthless. I had to call out of work which was necessary but made me feel guilty and even more upset.

My entire day yesterday consisted of beating myself up mentally, binge-eating, trying to escape into Fallout 4, and napping. So much napping.

My boyfriend did what he could to try to cheer me up and to make sure I was eating and drinking water, lighting stress-relieving candles around me and putting my cat on my lap when I was feeling particularly bad (quick tip – purring cats make you feel better). Despite all this, I just felt like absolute trash all day.

Depression isn’t something that you can smile your way out of or ignore the pain of. There’s nothing worse that you can say to someone suffering from depression than “snap out of it” or “It’s not that bad – deal with it.” It’s a mental illness that can lead to physical pain and make normal life impossible to carry on with.

Being bipolar is difficult. There are any number of things that can trigger either a manic or depressive episode. The worst thing I’ve been dealing with lately is that it appears that my job is a trigger for depression, which is terrible since it’s the best-paying job I’ve ever had, and I desperately need the medical and mental health benefits that I receive from it.

While these manic and depressive episodes are different in everyone, and can even vary for me, this was a great example of what living with bipolar disorder feels like. As I learn more about coping with this disorder, I’ll share what I learn with you guys. As of today, I’m still struggling with the depressive part, but I know it won’t be too long before I’m on another upswing.

Bipolar disorder is one hell of a mentally exhausting disease.


Are there any questions you would like to see answered about living with bipolar disorder? Leave them in the comments for me and I’ll answer as many as I can!




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A Brief Guide to Mindfulness Meditation

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Meditation is a relatively easy and completely free activity that has an incredible effect on your moods, anxiety, and stress levels. I discovered this about a decade ago, during a challenging summer when I was really depressed and randomly picked up a few books on Buddhism and meditation to read.

A few years later, I found this wonderful meditation group on my university campus that I went to once a week. I had never received guided meditation before, and being in a relaxed atmosphere gave me a lot of positive space to grow my meditation practice.

Over the years since then, I kept up my meditation practice, until I moved to another state three years ago. Prior to that move, my practice had definitely been faltering. I had swung into another deep depression, and whenever I’m feeling that way I have trouble motivating myself to do even small tasks.

Meditation has been on my mind a lot recently because my mental health these past two or three months has been terrible. Even with anti-depressants and bipolar medication that is helping more than anything else I’ve taken, the stress of my job combined with general life stuff has had me feeling unmotivated and deeply unhappy.

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Which is why I’ve started meditating again. I wish I had never stopped, but it’s interesting to see how different my mind is during periods when I’ve meditated than when I haven’t. During long periods when I forgo meditation, I find that it takes less provocation to set off a panic attack or wild mood swings. However, when I meditate regularly, even when it’s just fifteen minutes a day, it’s obvious that I’m handling stress better, have more patience, and find myself having fewer high-anxiety days.

There are so many different ways to meditate, and how you meditate really comes down to what you get the most benefit from. I tend to focus mainly on mindfulness meditation, where I simply follow my breath. I’ve also used walking as a form of meditation, although that’s no longer possible where I live. Some people prefer guided meditation or meditating on an idea or feeling. There’s religious-based meditation and even people who use music or sports (such as running) to give them feelings similar to meditation.

Essentially, there’s no right or wrong way to meditate. 

Today, I want to give you guys a quick lesson on how I meditate. It’s very simple, although it isn’t always easy. The instructions below will lay out the basics for you, and I’ve provided some additional tips and advice afterward.


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A Simple Mindfulness Meditation Guide
For Beginners

First, start by finding a comfortable, quiet place to sit. It doesn’t have to be anywhere fancy, I usually meditate on my couch or floor. You can do it outside if you want, or in your bed. Just make yourself comfortable.

Set a timer for however long you want to meditate. I usually aim for 10-15 minutes per session, but you can do as little as five minutes or as much as an hour (or more). When you’re first starting out, I recommend keeping it to just 5-10 minutes, and then gradually increasing the time as you get more comfortable.

Now, you’re ready to start meditating! Close your eyes and begin to move your focus to your breath. Some people find this easier to do while silently saying corresponding words to yourself, such as “breathe in/breathe out” or counting your breaths until you get to ten and then starting over. Personally, I either focus on the rise and fall of my chest as I breathe or use the “breathe in/breathe out” method.

Any time a stray thought comes forward, just gently acknowledge it and go back to your breath. Try not to get frustrated when this happens – it’s inevitable. Even people who have been meditating for years have trouble keeping their thoughts entirely at bay.

When your timer goes off, slowly bring yourself out of your practice. I usually take a moment or two to appreciate how relaxed my body feels while slowly opening my eyes. Take as long as you can before getting up and carrying on with your day. Trust me, once you feel how relaxed your body is even after a short meditation session, you’ll want to!


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Things to Remember

  • There’s no need to get into a full-lotus position or sit in front of an altar of crystals or statues. For this kind of meditation, the only important thing is that you’re in a sitting position that you can comfortably maintain for the duration of your practice.
  • It’s okay if you can’t turn off your thoughts! Meditation isn’t easy and it takes years of practice to be able to empty your mind of all thoughts. I’ve been meditating for years and I still find random thoughts popping up every time I sit. When this happens, just acknowledge the thought and go back to your breath.
  • If it’s hard for you to focus on your breath, try guided meditations. There are tons of free resources! My favorite app is Headspace. You can also just search guided meditation on YouTube or find CDs at your local library. I’ve seen guided meditations for five minutes all the way up to a couple of hours. Find what works best for you.
  • While you can meditate anywhere, some people prefer to set up a little meditation area and find that it helps them maintain the habit. If you have space and think this will help, go for it! It’s easy to set up a nice meditation area. Grab some cushions, candles, plants, or whatever else reminds you of relaxation.
  • Most cities have meditation groups available, so if you’d like to find a meditation group or class, do a Google search of your area or check Meetup.com.
  • If you have pets, prepare to have them invade your personal space. Over the years, I’ve lived with cats and dogs and it never fails that once I sit down to meditate, they become fascinated and walk over to plop down into my lap or start sniffing at me. Just like those stray thoughts, try to ignore it!

As I said before, meditation is really important to me. If you give this lesson a shot, let me know if it worked for you! This is a topic that I love, so if you want to see more meditation lessons, just let me know!


Do you have a regular meditation practice? Tell me about it in the comments!




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Everything You Need to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Now that it’s officially autumn, it’s getting close to the time of year when many people, approximately 10 million of them, are going to start feeling more depressed.

Seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as SAD, is a form of depression that affects people based on seasons. The majority of people with SAD become depressed in autumn and winter, with the symptoms lessening or disappearing in spring or summer. The symptoms start out mildly at the beginning of the season and then gets worse as the season progresses.

While SAD can affect anyone, there are certain people who are more prone to it. Women are four times more likely than men to be diagnosed with it, and people with a family history of SAD or other forms of depression are more prone. Also, the farther you live from the equator, the more common SAD becomes.


Symptoms

Many of the symptoms of SAD are the same as for people suffering from year-round depression, such as: overwhelming feelings of sadness, low energy, feeling hopeless, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in things you previously loved, changes in appetite, problems sleeping, or thoughts of death or suicide.

However, there are symptoms specific to SAD, and if you suffer from it in autumn/winter or spring/summer. Here are those symptoms, from the Mayo Clinic:

Fall and winter SAD

Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:

Oversleeping
Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
Weight gain
Tiredness or low energy
Social withdrawal

Spring and summer SAD

Symptoms specific to summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, sometimes called summer depression, may include

Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
Poor appetite
Weight loss
Agitation, anxiety, or violent behavior
Restlessness


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Causes of SAD

While, like depression, the root cause of what causes SAD and why only certain people suffer from it is unknown, there are a number of factors that can contribute. The most prevalent are the changes to your serotonin and melatonin levels.

Serotonin and melatonin are both important chemicals produced naturally in your body.

Serotonin, also called 5-hydroxytryptamine, is found in your brain, bowels, and blood platelets. Your body’s levels of serotonin can increase due to exercise and diet, along with light levels. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, as the chemical is responsible for regulating mood, sleep, memory, and more.

You know that feeling after working out when you feel amazing and invincible? That’s serotonin. A deficiency in serotonin has a number of symptoms, such as

  • bad moods
  • poor memory
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • cravings for sweet or starchy foods

Melatonin is a hormone produced by your pineal gland that aids in sleeping well and regularly. According to the National Sleep Foundation,

“During the day the pineal is inactive. When the sun goes down and darkness occurs, the pineal is ‘turned on’ by the SCN [suprachiasmatic nucleaus, an area of the brain] and begins to actively produced melatonin, which is released into the blood.”

Bright lights (such as those fluorescent lights you work under) and blue light (from your phone or computer screens) both suppress the production of melatonin. There are a number of ways that you can increase your melatonin levels at night.

The most obvious way is to turn off your technology an hour before going to bed. Blue light is super harmful to your ability to sleep, and we all spend too much time on our phones anyway. Turn them off and read a book before bed. There are also special glasses that you can buy that block out harmful lights.

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Stop doing this!

The most popular way to increase melatonin levels, however, is to take it as a supplement. Melatonin supplements can be purchased over-the-counter and from online retailers such as Amazon and Wal-Mart. It’s generally considered safe, although there can be side-effects. While it can really help some people sleep better, it’s a bad choice for others.

To give you an example, I’ll share the effects that melatonin supplements have on both myself and my boyfriend.

I take melatonin a couple of times per week, on those days when I can’t fall asleep by other means. I’ll take two gummies about an hour before sleep, and by the time that hour is up, I’m falling into a blissful slumber.

When my boyfriend takes melatonin, however, it does help him fall asleep, but when he wakes up the next morning, his entire day is ruined by a “melatonin hangover.” He’s groggy for the entire day and has trouble focusing. We’ve even tried cutting his dose in half, and it still has the same effects.

If you have trouble sleeping and want to give melatonin a try, by all means go for it. Just remember that it isn’t for everyone. Some common side-effects of taking supplemental melatonin include drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Also, it’s not safe to take melatonin if you have an autoimmune disease or are taking oral contraceptives (it reduces their effectiveness).

 


Natural Ways to Relieve SAD

While it typically isn’t possible to get over SAD on your own, there are a number of activities and habits you can take up in the autumn and winter to reduce the severity of your symptoms.

  1. Exercise regularly. Exercise causes your brain to release important chemicals (such as serotonin) that promote your mood. Plus, exercise has so many other great benefits, like increased brainpower, weight loss, higher energy levels, and reduced risks of chronic diseases.
  2. LightOne of the treatments for SAD is the use of light to improve your mood. While going outside and getting natural sunlight is the best choice, that’s a lot harder to do in the winter. Fortunately, there are countless lamps made specifically to mimic natural light. Sitting near one of these lamps will improve your mood during those darker times. Very Well Mind has put together a wonderful list of some of your best options.
  3. Diet. Studies have shown that foods high in a chemical call tryptophans can lead to improved mood. Here’s a list of foods high in tryptophans that you might want to add to your diet when you normally experience SAD. As you can see, there are a lot of different options, so everyone should be able to incorporate at least a few of these into their diet.
    • Bananas
    • Eggs
    • Salmon
    • Poultry (chicken, turkey, and goose)
    • Seeds & nuts
    • Soy products
    • Spinach
    • Milk and cheese
  4. Aromatherapy. Essential oils are great for relieving stress. This is one option that I can personally vouch for. I used to work in the spa industry, and I learned to use various essential oils to produce the desired effects that I wanted. One of my favorite, not related to SAD but still useful, is the energizing effects of grapefruit and rosemary essential oils blended together into a diffuser. Here’s a list of four essential oils that might help relieve symptoms of SAD.
  5. Routine. Sticking to a regular schedule, even when you don’t feel like it, has the benefit of teaching your body when it’s time to sleep or eat. SAD can lead to insomnia and weight gain, and having specific times when you do these things can lessen the effects.
  6. Journaling. I’ve written on this blog before about journaling and the effect it can have on your life and mood. In my own experience with depression, journaling can provide a necessary outlet to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, where you can better analyze your thoughts and deal with them. I like to journal in the evening before I go to bed, as a sort of “brain dump” to help me sleep well, instead of worrying about everything that happened that day.

Seeking Professional Help

Sometimes, home remedies aren’t going to be enough, and that’s okay. You need to take your mental health just as seriously as your physical health.

If you start to have feelings associated with depression or SAD, please seek out your doctor or a psychologist. They’ll start off by doing a few tests to make sure something else isn’t going on, such as an underlying health problem. Once that’s ruled out, your doctor will do a psychological evaluation to determine if you have SAD.

Once you’re diagnosed, your doctor will recommend treatments or medications for you. For treatment options, they might recommend light therapy (phototherapy) or traditional talk therapy (psychotherapy). When it comes to medication, there are a number of options, including bupropion (which I take myself and has improved my energy levels) and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, aka anti-depressants).

I would like to reiterate here that there is nothing wrong with taking anti-depressants or going to therapy. It drives me crazy that there is still a stigma in some communities over seeking help for mental health. If you are feeling depressed, please seek help.


In the end, seasonal affective disorder is a real and very serious disease. If you find that yourself or loved ones are exhibiting any of the symptoms listed above, please consider getting help.


Do you suffer from seasonal affective disorder or know someone that does? Feel free to leave any insights or advice in the comments!




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When Love of Literature Becomes Book Buying Obsession

Editorial

I’ve written about my issues with anxiety and depression on this blog before, but I want to talk about a specific problem that arose out of my depression that I wasn’t aware of until recently. I’m a bit ashamed of it, but I’m proud of myself for being aware of the issue so that I can be more cognizant of it.

I was compulsively buying books whenever I’d feel anxious or sad in order to get a brief flash of pleasure.

Looking back on the last couple of years, I’ve realized that I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve always been surrounded by stacks of (mostly unread) books and it’s nearly impossible for me to pass up any book that is on sale. There are days when I’m feeling really down and hopeless, but also restless, and on days like that it’s not uncommon for me to go to a thrift store just to buy discounted books.

Amazon Kindle deals have been absolutely dangerous for me over the years. I have over 500 ebooks on my Kindle, almost all of which I bought because they were discounted down to $1-3. I’ve read perhaps 5% of them, which is shameful. I still want to buy Kindle books occasionally because they are a wonderful deal, but for the past couple of weeks, every time I’m about to hit “Buy Now,” I ask myself if I need to pay money to read this or if I can’t just pick it up from the library. Every time I’ve asked myself this question, I’ve opted for the library. It’s not a fix, but it’s progress.

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I found a way to justify any purchase.

Even when I really shouldn’t have been spending money, I would talk myself into buying a book because I had a 15% off coupon or because I had to read that exact book right now. This is one of the hardest things for me. Hell, I literally found myself doing this today while browsing YA fantasy hardcovers on Amazon. It got especially bad in the first few months of starting this blog when I felt justified in buying all the books because I was now a book blogger.

The last decade has had a lot of lows and just a few high points in terms of my mental health. I’m finally getting the help I need thanks to the fact that I have health insurance for the first time in ten years. Over the years I fell back on several forms of unhealthy self-medication, such as smoking copious amounts of marijuana and drinking to the point of blacking out several times a month. Thankfully, those dangerous coping mechanisms are years behind me. These days, I have two things I resort to when I’m feeling down: books and food.

I have a long way to go before I would say that I no longer use purchasing books as a relief for depression, but I feel like just being aware of it has made me think more about my habits the last couple of weeks. I’ve purchased books in March, but not at the rate that I had done in January or February (in February I’m pretty sure I bought around 40 books). I’m embracing the library more (which I should have been doing all along!) and trying to focus on reading the books I already have.

I love books and reading. Reading is healthy and is a great coping mechanism to escape from things that are causing you stress. I want to embrace that aspect of reading over the blind purchasing of books I don’t need in order to get that brief ten-second boost in my brain.


Has anyone else ever had this problem? Let’s talk about it in the comments. I’d love some advice on how to deal with this.

How a Single Trip to the Library Changed My Life

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I had a really rough time in high school, as do many people. I was horribly depressed, had crippling social anxiety, felt like an epic loser, and fantasized about suicide. At a time when I really should have been in therapy or on anti-depressants, I had no outlet for my building stress and no one to talk to. My free time was spent being absorbed is escapism through video games such as The Sims and in books.

Things didn’t change after graduation. The few friends I had moved away for school, my family’s house burned down, and when I wasn’t working I was still spending all of my time just trying to mentally escape how depressed I was.

One day, after we had settled into the new house my family had rented, my mother and I made one of our frequent trips to our local library. I picked up the few books I had reserved and then wandered among the shelves for a while.

I came across a shelf of books about Buddhism, meditation, and mindfulness, and picked up several books by the Dalai Lama, Alan Watts, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

I’m not sure what prompted me to check out those books. I wasn’t particularly interested in meditation or Buddhism. I didn’t know any Buddhists aside from the group of monks that would periodically come to the farmer’s market I worked at to stock up on honey. I’m not even positive I’d heard of mindfulness before. However, regardless of what prompted nineteen-year-old me to check those books out of the library, I’m forever grateful that I did.

One of the books I picked up was The Dalai Lama’s How to Practice the Way to a Meaningful Life. The book, and the others I had gotten, somehow motivated me enough to start putting their lessons into practice.

(Side note: I soon purchased my own copy, which I still have. It’s easy to see how well-loved this book has been.)

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I started meditating every day and slowly became 100% happier.

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I meditated daily; just for a few minutes at first, then eventually ten to fifteen minutes at a time. Eventually, I felt myself growing happier. All of my motivation reappeared. I applied to a university in the mountains and was accepted. While in college, I became more interested in Buddhist teachings, read up on philosophy and mindfulness, and continued meditating daily. While I still had some anxieties, I became much happier and allowed myself to focus on real life rather than escapism.

After my first two years at that college, I ended up dropping out and moving to Asheville, NC (I had been studying political science and it was making me feel apathetic and frustrated). I made friends who also meditated, and was in a city where many of its inhabitants spend their time focusing on spiritual pursuits. I was finally in an environment that promoted happiness and relaxation.

After a few years of meditating, I became the happiest I’ve ever been. I felt motivated to exercise and eat healthily. I went hiking every week and made a ton of great friends. My life finally felt worth living, and it was all due to a trip to the library. 


Has a book ever changed your life? Let me know in the comments.

A Quick Life Update

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For the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting as much as I normally would. My goal for this blog was to post something at least once a day since there are always things to talk about in the book world. That is still my goal, and one that I fully intend to get back to this week, but I wanted to take a moment and share a little bit of information about myself in case something like this happens again.

I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety for most of my life. It started in middle school and comes in waves. I’ll have long periods where I feel completely fine and happy, and then something will set it off and I’ll fall back into a period where I feel the effects of both conditions before I find a way to deal with it and get back to my happy state. Generally, those periods of anxiety and depression will last anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.

For the past few months, I’ve been dealing with it again. My full-time job is incredibly anxiety-inducing and can be very intense, and I believe that’s one of the main things that triggered the current depression and anxiety that I’m currently dealing with.

Three months ago I started taking an anti-anxiety medication after having multiple panic attacks while at work or while driving. Although I thought the medication was working for the first couple of weeks, it really wasn’t. Rather than lessening the effects of my anxiety, it’s actually been making it worse, as well as causing me to feel more and more depressed with each passing day. Along with that has come insomnia, nightmares when I am lucky enough to fall asleep, zero motivation, no interest in things I normally love, and poor eating habits.

Fortunately, I have an incredible boyfriend who has been helping me through it, and I have a doctor’s appointment today to get on a new medication that will hopefully affect me better. I took most of the week off work to rest and take care of myself, and that included taking a bit of time off of blogging.

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Myself and my incredibly supportive significant other

Starting today, I’m pushing myself to get back to blogging every single day, because creating and writing for Read Yourself Happy brings me a great deal of joy and I adore being part of the book community. I just wanted to give you guys a quick look into my own life and let you know why I was absent for the last week. I’ve also been thinking about adding a weekly or bi-weekly feature on this site about ways I’ve found to deal with anxiety and depression, and if that’s something you’re interested in seeing, definitely let me know.