"Introspection exercises are important in times of intensity," writes Bipolar UK chief executive Simon Kitchen.
To say the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on mental wellbeing is an understatement. Social isolation mixed with fear, and anxiety over the future has been a hard cocktail to swallow, particularly for people living with bipolar disorder.
"There is a crucial distinction between rumination and introspection."
In fact, Bipolar UK recently conducted a survey* which revealed that almost two thirds of people reported experiencing depressive symptoms since the onset of the crisis, ranging from slight withdrawal to recurring thoughts of suicide. The number of people reporting feelings of panic and anxiety also doubled post-lockdown.
These findings are extremely worrying and require urgent attention, particularly with the UK facing further lockdown restrictions throughout the months ahead. However, there are a number of tools which may help to empower people living with bipolar to manage their mental health and live their lives to the full during this challenging period.
Introspection, a process of healthy self-reflection, exploration, and examination, is one such tool that can have a positive impact on our thoughts and overall wellbeing.
Introspection vs. rumination
There is a crucial distinction between rumination and introspection. Defined as self-focused, repetitive thoughts about emotional events or experiences, rumination has been linked extensively with bipolar disorder.
The tendency to ruminate can maintain and exacerbate depressive and manic episodes and create barriers to internally engage in active problem solving. Introspection, on the other hand, provides an environment for positive self-reflection and personal growth.
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Through introspection, we can become more aware, open, and accepting of who we are. Introspection can help us to better understand our thought process and how we react and respond to situations that are anchored by our perceptions of events.
By carefully and compassionately assessing our thoughts and actions, we stand to gain more clarity and control over our opinions and choices.
Discovering the map
Regular journaling or meditating can help you to get started with the introspection process. Allow your mind to reflect on your thoughts and feelings, while ‘working them’ to identify and challenge any harmful habitual self-beliefs.
The practice in principle is to ask yourself a series of questions, no more than five to seven per exercise, that can help you to find your own answers. These prompts can stimulate thinking around what we challenge from our negative and harmful inner critic. In this way, we can offer our thoughts alternative and more productive lines of thinking.
When carrying out this exercise, it is important to be aware of both your experience and your thoughts towards that particular experience. When you can separate the two, often you become able to disrupt the feeling that you are going in circles of distress, but rather considering a different perspective to create room for a new shape.
Self-compassion is encouraged when doing an introspection exercise. Remember, there is no pressure to answer correctly. This is an opportunity for you to explore yourself intimately without judgment or bias.
Another important tip, particularly when writing out your introspection questions is to stop asking ‘why’. This can have a negative impact or lead you to fixate on the issue and place blame on yourself or others instead of examining a situation in a productive and healthy way. Instead, try questions that ask ‘what’ as these can be more helpful at keeping us curious and open when seeking out new information about ourselves, rather than trapped in our limitations.
The keys to your treasure chest
Setting aside time for introspection, particularly in times of intensity, is important. Stress, anxiety, and fear can manipulate your mindset to accept a diminished story of who you really are and make you feel like you have no other choice but to react to the negative events around you. Such beliefs can feel debilitating.
Through introspection, you can use this period instead to gain a better understanding of yourself, your thoughts, and your feelings.
To create a new habit of thinking, ask yourself a series of questions each day. Aim to stick to similar questions for around 10 days and see where you can bring those thoughts into your day-to-day being. The following questions have been provided as an example and may provide some guidance or food for thought:
- What things are truly in my control? Am I accepting of what I can’t change?
- What is another way I can see this situation? What ways could I respond better?
- What am I making harder than it needs to be? Am I working against false impressions?
- Do I show appreciation for my strengths?
- What choices have I made to show compassion for myself?
- What are sources of unsteadiness I can say no to so I can yes to what matters?
- Good or bad, high, or low, who am I and what do I stand for?
- What is the real cause of my irritation - external events or my opinion of them?
- Am I acting here or is my temper/anxiety/sadness?
- What are positive parts of my life driven by?
Finally, try to set yourself a time limit each day for a period of introspection. This can help you to stay focused and avoid falling into a circle of negative thoughts.
Remember, if you are living with bipolar disorder, you are not alone. In fact, over 1 million people in the UK have bipolar, and many of these individuals lead productive, happy, and fulfilling lives.
The key to coping with bipolar is early diagnosis, acceptance and adapting your lifestyle so you can control the condition as much as possible. You can also manage bipolar through medication, the right healthcare, therapy, and self-management.
For more information advice, Bipolar UK provides a range of helpful services to support anybody affected by bipolar. To find out more, visit www.bipolaruk.org.
* The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on people affected by Bipolar.