This is my third and final post in the series I’ve been writing titled, “The Guessing Game Advocate“.
4. Go natural.
I’ve known people who get a diagnosis, get put on a medication, feel a little better, and decide that that is it. Whatever amount of difference the medication makes is all the difference they think they can get in improving their illness. Sometimes it’s enough that they are completely satisfied. Sometimes it’s not much at all, or the initial benefit decreases after a period of time and they are left feeling disappointed and a little hopeless.
The good news is that is not necessarily “as good as it gets”. For centuries people treated illness and disease without pharmaceuticals. As I have said before, medications can definitely have a place. I know far more people who are on one or more medications that greatly improve their circumstance, than I know people like me who are only negatively impacted by medication.
But very few of these people feel their prescription has “cured” all of their symptoms. So, we look for more treatments to supplement the deficiencies in medication, or for people like me, to do what medication is “supposed” to do.
The nice thing about a lot of alternative treatments is that they are free or pretty close to it.
Exercise. If you are looking for a way to feel better exercise is about the biggest bang for your buck. It helps reduce stress, releases endorphins, calms anxiety, improves cognitive function, helps control addiction, and can help you sleep better at night. Here is a nice article explaining these and a few other benefits in greater detail.
Exercise is a huge portion of my treatment plan. When I feel overwhelmed, going for a run is usually the best thing I can do. While I run I can sort through my feelings a bit, sometimes making it a mini, personal therapy session. I can take a step back and look at the situation more objectively, allowing me to see that maybe my husband wasn’t intentionally being hurtful or people probably aren’t judging me harshly because of that one stupid thing I said (or maybe it wasn’t even that stupid anyway). When things are really bad and overwhelming, I can just push myself as hard as I can go, so my brain and body are too preoccupied to keep stressing over it and I at least get a temporary break. Another benefit for me is to have a race I’m training for. I’m super competitive, so regularly participating in an event is exciting to me.
Yoga is probably one of the best types of exercise for helping with mental health. My mom gave me this book several years ago, Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. It has chapters on anxiety, depression, and insomnia (among others) that have all helped me reduce symptoms. But even going to a local yoga class and doing whatever they are doing can have a positive impact on your symptoms.
The yogic breath (“belly breathing”) stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system and naturally calms your body. The gentle stretching and strengthening of your muscles can reduce the pain that frequently accompanies depression. I find that the increased awareness of my body that comes with consistent yoga practice gives me a greater respect for my body and it is easier to love and be patient with myself.
You can even look up yoga on Youtube and do it in the privacy of your home. The only things you really need to practice are time and some stretchy clothing. That should eliminate the majority of your excuses. Yoga focused on breathing can even take as little as 10 minutes to be effective.
Find a hobby. For me, this is exercise a lot of the time. But find things you enjoy doing like playing an instrument, reading a book, getting your craft on, baking, or whatever. Just make sure it is something you truly enjoy. And then allow yourself to experience the joy of doing whatever that thing is. Eliminate any pressure for doing it perfectly or for anyone else. Do it for yourself and love it.
Volunteer and/or serve. This is a proven remedy for whatever ails you. It will not “fix” your illness, but it will lessen the burden for at least a little while. I am deeply religious, so I believe that the reason serving makes us feel so good is because it allows us to experience God’s love for our fellowman, which in turn helps us feel His love for us individually. But even if you are not religious, this article cites a couple of studies that prove that the more you serve, the happier you are.
Joining a support group is another helpful option. Not all groups are created equal. Before I found the group I’m currently a part of, I had some very unhelpful experiences. But, you have to go at least once to find out. I am a big fan of Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (same group who makes that app I suggested in my first post in this series). Their website lists local groups, online groups, and how to start your own chapter. Check it out! And then be brave and go.
A support group can be an intimidating thing. But typically, it’s made of a bunch of people who didn’t know each other before joining the group. They come from all different places and walks of life. Some of them you will really like, some of them probably not so much. But you can benefit so much from hearing what other people have to say about dealing with the same symptoms you deal with and how they cope with them. You can also benefit by sharing your own experience, learning that you aren’t alone, and possibly really helping someone else. So, be brave and go! If it’s not a helpful group (some just dwell on the negative and rarely discuss coping techniques), try a different one. NAMI usually has local support groups. You can also talk to your doctor or therapist, or do a google search.
Find a friend. Be social. Mental illness often tells us to isolate. During your very worst of times, it’s okay to take a day or two off from life and take care of yourself. But don’t give in to the temptation to make this a habit. Force yourself to be out among people. Smile if it isn’t too painful. And find someone to go out for ice cream with or even to come over and watch a movie with you. Remind your brain that you are not alone in this and that you need and are needed by other people.
Have your blood tested. Also, if your doctor has not already done a thorough blood test, request one. Have your thyroid checked. Have your iron and your vitamin D checked. These are just a few examples of things that can cause some of the symptoms of depression and can be treated with supplements.
Supplements. Speaking of supplements, there are a billion out there. And they are expensive. Talk to your doctor about them (once you have found a doctor that is willing to listen to you and will discuss these “alternative” treatments). My doctor recently sent me a compilation of studies that have been done on “nutrient-based therapies for bipolar disorder”. None of the studies were large enough to have truly conclusive results, but here are some of the preliminary findings: n-3 fatty acids, inositol, chromium, and folate can help improve depression; and choline, magnesium, and tryptophan can help improve mania. If you’re interested in any of these, talk to your doctor to discuss how much and when it would be best to take it (i.e. You might not want to take something that calms your system during the day when it may negatively impact your alertness and vice versa).
I read a book called Med Free Bipolar that has several suggestions of alternative treatments. It’s an interesting read and I recommend it. But, keep in mind that the author is not a doctor, so discuss any changes you plan to make with your doctor first. I recently found out that a supplement I have been taking to help me sleep, based on advice in the book, is possibly also messing with my hormones. I learned a lot from this book, but I recommend it with a strong caution. Just remember that each mental illness is very individual. She makes some pretty grand claims in her book, and clearly her method is working for her, but that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone else. Discuss any changes with your doctor before making them.
The thing about supplements is they can be expensive. So buy in small quantities first. You don’t want to be stuck with a huge case full of pills that don’t work for you. I know this because I have one. Also, just try adding one supplement at a time and faithfully track your symptoms. Ask your doctor how long you should wait before adding in something else because it varies. Again, I’m guilty of getting desperate and starting on four new supplements at the same time. Then, if I feel better, I have to keep taking all four because I don’t know which one(s) is actually helping.
Light Therapy. Here is another website with several alternative treatments. I am currently trying light therapy. This is one that anyone with bipolar needs to be very careful with because it can cause mania. I use it for 15-30 minutes in the early afternoon because it is more likely to cause mania when used in the morning. I haven’t noticed it helping my mood much (or causing mania), but it does help me stay awake while I study. I want to try a dawn stimulator, but I’m waiting until the end of this semester to get started. If I remember, I will post an update when I have some experience.
Daily Schedule. The above mentioned website also has a link discussing a regular daily schedule. This is something I am slowly getting better at. Not because I enjoy getting up early on the weekends, but because I am learning that when I am off my schedule, things usually do not go well. I don’t know that I have ever experienced a crash when I have been sticking to my regular schedule. Still, this is something I stubbornly resist for reasons I can’t fully explain. That being said, I still give it as enthusiastic of an endorsement as anything else I’ve previously mentioned! Just don’t be as stubborn as me.
A significant piece to keeping a regular schedule is getting consistent and regular sleep. This can be extremely difficult when your symptoms make you either want to sleep all day or party all night. Or when you want to sleep but anxiety keeps you awake. Or any number of other disturbances. (Another plug for yoga: yoga for insomnia is the best treatment I have found for better sleep, especially during times when my anxiety is high.) So, this takes commitment and consistency and discipline. Do your best. And monitor your symptom tracker. Seeing the benefit you gain from better sleep will probably be the best motivator when you feel like veering off of your consistent schedule.
6. Stay Open.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of alternative treatments, which leads to my last point—Stay open. Trying new treatments can be scary. Many of the things I have tried have made things worse. But I am not okay to just accept that I will always have to feel this way. One of the biggest challenges for me with this mental illness is accepting how very little control I have over my symptoms. Researching and trying new things to add helps me feel that I have some control over something. And it goes back to my conclusion of my last post—it also gives me hope. Even though only one thing out of every 10 or 20 things I try helps, it still gives me hope that there are more options out there that I can add to my treatment plan to make it more effective.
So, there you have it, friends. My advice on becoming the best advocate for your own health:
- Track your symptoms.
- Find a good doctor.
- Learn how to trust yourself.
- Go natural.
- Stay open.
And follow the advice of a man I love, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Hope on. Journey on.”
The Guessing Game Advocate – Article Series
This article is part of series of articles by Cheryl. Click on the links below to read more about the Guessing Game Advocate:
Part 1 – The Guessing Game Advocate
Part 2 – Learning to Trust Yourself
Part 3 – Going Natural
This post appeared first on Real Imprints.