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Vital Signs

How mood mapping helped me beat bipolar disorder

By Liz Miller, Special to CNN
Dr Liz Miller has written "Mood Mapping" to help people beat mental health problems.
Dr Liz Miller has written "Mood Mapping" to help people beat mental health problems.
  • Dr Liz Miller has written an easy-to-read guide to help people improve their mental health
  • The author is keen to show that much can be done without resorting to medication and drugs
  • "Mood Mapping" has proved helpful for parents, teachers and people in business

Editor's note: Dr. Liz Miller is a UK-based psychologist and occupational health physician. She first trained as a neurosurgeon until becoming ill with bipolar disorder. She writes for about the strategies of mood mapping and mood management she has developed through her experience of managing her own mental health.

CNN does not endorse any of the views presented in this article.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 28. I was a successful neurosurgeon in a leading UK teaching hospital, and a leading researcher in head injury. This diagnosis followed 12 months in which I had experienced a series of personal and work related stresses.

My neurosurgical career was over and it looked as though I would never work again. My bipolar disorder came out of the blue. No one in my family had mental health problems and it was several years before I could accept my diagnosis. These were difficult years, with severe depression and psychiatric admissions.

When I finally accepted the diagnosis, I read everything I could about bipolar disorder . I realized there were no easy solutions and no simple answers. Until I sorted out what was going on inside my head, I would not be able to work effectively or enjoy life.

I was desperate to find out what had happened to me and what I could do to prevent it happening again. My first lesson was to put my health first.

What is mood mapping?
Energy is plotted on the vertical line and how positive or negative you feel is plotted on the horizontal line.
These two lines give four quadrants on the map representing the four basic moods.

1- High energy and feeling positive -- which is Action

2- High energy but feeling negative -- which is Stressed or Anxious

3 - Low energy but feeling negative - which is Depression or Exhaustion

4 - Low energy but feeling positive -- which is Calm.

I spent hours working on how I felt and what had made me feel that way. I charted what I had eaten, who I had spoken to or what I had done or not done. With time, I came to see the two most important parts of how I felt were how much energy I had and how good or bad I felt.

I am now 52 and would say that I was not completely of it until about eight years ago. I have not had any problems depression or highs since that time, and have not taken any kind of medication -- not even painkillers, since then.

Mood Maps help you work out how you feel. For example, if you have plenty of energy but don't feel too good, this is "Stressed" or "Anxious" and if you have low energy and feel good, this mood is "Calm".

Once you know how you feel, you can work out why you feel that way and what you can do to feel better.

I worked out that there are five main areas of life which affect a person's mood that can be changed . The five keys are your surroundings; your physical health; your relationships; what you know are your strategies for life; and being yourself.

Recent studies have shown how important surroundings are. Looking at trees and being in natural surroundings as opposed to being in city environments helps people feel better. Physical health is equally important; diet and exercise are fundamental. Even if someone has a disability he or she can still be healthy.

With time, I came to see the two most important parts of how I felt were how much energy I had and how good or bad I felt.
--Dr Liz Miller

I have developed some simple rules for food "Eat nothing with a bar code!" This means avoid processed food, and keep to a natural diet, like fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, fish. These form the basis of a healthy diet. "If it doesn't look like food, it probably isn't". Food is best when it comes out of the ground, is picked ripe from a tree or caught, cooked and eaten while it is still fresh.

I always carry fruit, almonds and some fresh water with me, in case I need a ready snack. I believe that much of what we eat today has too many chemicals and preservatives. And definitely smoking and alcohol don't help.

Relationships make a difference to the way we feel. I believe we need to cherish our relationships with people and learn social skills to help us get on with one another better. I believe our family, friends, and people around us are our most precious resource.

Good life coping strategies are important, for example how we talk to ourselves. Too many people beat themselves up, rather than give themselves the healthy balanced encouragement they naturally give their friends. I believe that first we have to be our own best friend. This goes with the skill of thinking rationally and compassionately about even the most emotional issues. I use the phrase "An Informed Heart". And finally, I believe we need to be ourselves and have fun!

I am keen to show there is a lot we can do without resorting to medication and drugs. It helps to sort problems out sooner before they get out of hand and to look after our mental health in the same way as we look after our physical health.

In 2008 I was voted Mind Mental Health Champion by a UK mental health charity Mind for my work with other doctors who also have mental health problems and was given the chance to write a book. Mood Mapping is the result!

I wrote Mood Mapping as an easy-to-read guide to help people along the road to good mental health. I initially developed Mood Mapping to help my own mental health. When I started using it in my work in Occupational Health with firefighters I found that they were teaching Mood Mapping to their families. It was at that point I realized that it was something new and different.

It has already proved helpful for parents, teachers and in business, where people talk about being a bit "Top Left" or a bit definitely "Top Right Today".

One of my goals is to get Mood Mapping taught in schools, so that children grow up understanding their moods and managing them. Also in hospitals and prisons because once someone can manage their own mental health and wellbeing, they can begin to live life to the full.