Sunday, July 10, 2011

The biology of emotion

As someone who has experienced several manic episodes and one very long depressive episode, I have taken a keen interest in understanding what I believe is the root cause of the episodes. That is, the breakdown of the body's emotional regulatory system.

First you have to understand what emotions are and what their purpose is. The simple explanation is that they are the brain's "muscle memory". They serve as a short cut to determining how you should react to immediate circumstances. You don't have to ponder every change in your environment. Certain changes trigger chemical releases that make you feel a certain way physically. This physical reaction affects your judgment and behavior, especially if it's a circumstance that you've experienced before.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that, among other things, helps regulate emotions, their duration and their intensity. It does so by signaling other parts of the brain to signal certain organs to release specific chemicals. It's not necessary to understand the details of how all this occurs, only to understand that it is a semi-automatic system and basing your judgment and behavior solely on it is not always in your best interest.

I believe, in the case of bipolar episodes, that for some reason this system goes awry. For example, in a manic episode, I was constantly immersed in a feeling of euphoria laced with adrenaline. Every idea I had was brilliant and I wanted to act upon it immediately. If the system were working properly, a great idea or epiphany might trigger this response for a few moments. Instead, it was constant. Whatever is responsible for turning it off was not working. The interesting thing is that it only seemed to malfunction for a particular emotional state. This was glaringly evident in the depressive episode, which lasted an entire year. My brain seemed only to be able to focus and dwell on the negative. Everything was hopeless and pointless. When it finally stopped, there had been no significant change in my circumstances, only my emotional state. It just stopped.

The realization that overwhelming emotion is a sign of a physical malfunction has helped me to be much more aware of my emotional state and to always question its validity. It's been about 7 years since my last episode and I think part of the credit goes to the fact that I keep my emotions on a short leash these days. For example, I recently was feeling very agitated and short-tempered. This, by itself, is not necessarily a red flag. However, after a couple of hours I began to do some self-analysis. There really was no reason for it and it wasn't going away. In addition, I realized that even if there were a reason for it, it's not a very productive state of mind anyway. While I couldn't immediately shut down the physical feeling by shear power of will, I could adjust my thought process and reaction to the feeling. I essentially regarded it as a temporary ailment, like having a cold. I was careful not to take it out on the people I came in contact with and to disassociate the physical feeling from my reasoning process. Eventually, it subsided.

This is important because the brain can be trained. Your reaction to an emotion this time, influences the chemical releases that will occur next time. Your brain stores information on how you reacted and whether the result was good or bad. You may not have to work so hard to control it in the future. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to wallow in an emotion without question, you are reinforcing the chemical reaction which may make it more difficult to counteract in the future.

Like most tools, emotions can be very useful. However, if you don't take the time to learn how to control them and recognize when they're not working properly, they can be dangerous and even deadly. Drugs can mask the problem, and if you need them, take them, but don't be afraid to confront, challenge, get to know and understand the various physical states we call emotion. Make them work for you rather than govern you.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Charlie Sheen syndrome

It's obvious to me, and probably to any of you who have dealt with bipolar disorder, that Mr. Sheen's drug and alcohol use are a side issue to what's currently on display in the media. He's a bipolar in the midst of a full blown manic episode.

It may be that drug and alcohol over-indulgence provide the bipolar individual with an easily recognizable, familiar scapegoat for how they're feeling and behaving. It provides an illusion of control, even when you're out of control. After all, you can take another drink or not; have another hit or not. It's something you do to yourself, as opposed to a chemical imbalance that you have no control over. Control is better.

Here are some insights into my own condition. Maybe you can recognize some of it.

I drank and used drugs to great excess for many years, but I was not addicted. I do have addictive tendencies in that I'm always over-indulging in something (currently, it's coffee). That's not to say that one can't be bipolar and an addict. I guess I just don't have the addict gene.

It took several episodes and many years before I acknowledged that in terms of awareness and intelligence, I was not on a higher plane, that mere mortals just didn't understand. I had a biological problem that was a real detriment to myself and those around me. It wasn't until the depressive episode that I finally decided I'd had enough (the mania seemed pretty cool from my vantage point, the depression very nearly killed me). I tried to hide the mania because I wanted to continue to explore it. It can seem quite productive and I thought I could learn to control it and put it to good use.

Sleep is huge. Bipolars should ensure that they get sleep every night. If that means taking sleep aids, take sleep aids. In addition to any treatment and/or drugs, it helps to engage in constant, logical, self-analysis, especially of one's emotional state. You can still have undue emotions like anxiety, fear, anger, depression, euphoria, but you can train yourself to question them and disregard them if appropriate. Easily said. Not easily done.

Sheen has a handicap in that he's got so much money to spend on his entourage. Those around him are likely to reinforce his notion that he's some kind of super-human that the rest of us "can't process". He'll come out of this episode at some point. Then I expect he'll start looking for ways to recreate that awesome euphoria. I don't know where it goes from there. I just hope nobody gets hurt.

update; What a difference a day makes.

I don't want to do a series of Sheen posts, but it's worth updating. His "Winning Recipes" sketch that he aired today was well done and funny. He looked like he'd gotten a good nights sleep and a shower and some people actually went to the time and effort of putting together a good piece of sketch comedy. It was like Charlie Sheen doing a sketch about Charlie Sheen. In addition, his lawsuit against the producers of 2 1/2 men states that he was fired "while he was sick". That and his apology to co-star John Crier indicate that he's aware that he was not well. It's possible he actually has a good crew around him. I have no way of knowing. But if he can get himself together and make yet another fortune being his own reality show, more power to him.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Addicted to mania

I was watching an episode of celebrity rehab when Dr. Drew said that addiction was the only disease you had to convince people that they have. My first thought was "not true". It took several manic episodes before I was convinced that I was bipolar. I decided it was all just due to insomnia. Then, after a bit of reflection, I realized it really was kind of an addiction. An addiction to the mania.

I liked the mania. It was fun. It was exciting. I wanted to learn to feel like that all the time. If only I could figure out how to behave in a manner that didn't freak people out while I was experiencing it. Two things changed my outlook. One, was my first bout with depression. It lasted a full year. If that's the other half of this thing, I don't want anything to do with it. The other was the realization that my wife was not going to tolerate my little brain experiment indefinitely. If I didn't get my head out of my butt, I was going to be a very lonely manic.

That's when I really started taking the whole thing seriously. I still wanted to learn to handle it as drug free as possible, but I was going to handle it. And if the thoughts started racing, I wasn't going to try to hide it. I was going to get help.

I came to realize eventually, that it wasn't really the mania I was enjoying. It was the thoughts, ideas and awareness that came with it. Unfortunately it also came with a total loss of control of moment to moment judgment and behavior. I didn't go berserk or anything, but I obsessed about things and had to express every idea as it came up and they never stopped coming up. I didn't want to sleep because I didn't want to stop thinking and since I felt an urgency to express everything I was thinking, I never stopped talking or acting out my ideas, no matter how bizarre.

There's nothing wrong with bizarre ideas or lofty thoughts. I just didn't need to be sharing them all or acting on them. That's what I focused on. Now I make sure I get sleep, every night and if I'm having trouble, I don't hesitate to reach for the over the counter sleep aid, although I do mix them up so I'm not taking too much of any one. I probably average one or two doses a month over the course of a year.

It's been several years since I've had an episode, manic or depressive. But I have no delusions that it can't happen again. However, I am no longer a willing host. If/when it comes on again, I'll be wary and I'll combat it, with all the help I can muster. I still enjoy thinking, observing, discovering, pondering and the occasional epiphany, with the euphoria it can bring. But I can do all that without forcing everyone around me to participate. Everyone's got their own thing going on in their head and I'm not going in there uninvited. That's not sharing, it's just rude.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Maulder Method

Back in the day, I was a big fan of the X Files. Although I'm a very logical person, I admired Agent Maulder's problem solving technique. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but somehow, starting with an outrageous working theory, adding new input and following where it leads seemed to me to be an efficient way to solve complex problems or mysteries.

I think I've worked out why. Most of the time, when faced with a problem or mystery we have a set of possible solutions or working theories in mind. If something doesn't fit in with it; a pattern, a clue, a statement; the brain has a tendency to ignore it because it is deemed insignificant. It doesn't fit in to any of the possible solutions, therefore it must simply be a random event or object. By keeping even the most outrageous possibilities open (aliens, monsters, mega-conspiracies), you are tricking your brain into allowing you to acknowledge and store data and patterns it otherwise would have disposed of. This can be crucial when a potential solution that you hadn't previously thought of comes to mind and suddenly, everything fits.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Harnessing emotion; Go from slave to master

I've pointed out before that I think the problems associated with bipolar disorder or any chemical imbalance disorder arise from emotion.

The imbalanced chemicals cause the experience of emotion at inappropriate times. This affects your thought process and your behavior if you're not very aware of it.

I have learned, over many years, to react very differently to my own emotional state. I don't dismiss all emotion. After all, some are pleasant and even very useful. If I'm experiencing an adrenaline rush during one of my favorite songs, I'll go ahead and immerse myself in it for a few minutes. If I'm angry and it's helping me focus in a productive manner, I'll go ahead and be angry for a few minutes.

However, if I'm experiencing an unusual level of anxiety, fear, depression, irritability or even glee, my first response now is "imbalance". I don't look for circumstantial conditions to attach the emotion to. I know there aren't any. I regard it much like having a cold or flu (depending on the level of severity), take medicine if necessary, just ignore it if it's not.

There is a big difference between being aware of your condition and allowing it to define who you are. I don't mind sharing my insights and opinions for what they're worth, but I'm not joining any support groups, becoming an activist or asking anyone for funding. I will not make "bipolar" that big a part of my life. It's an interesting footnote, and that's all it's going to be. The lessons I've learned from dealing with chemical imbalance are just as useful for those who don't experience chemical imbalance. Understanding your emotional system and making it work for you, instead of being its puppet, will make anyone happier and more productive.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Get to know your brain

It's a common misconception that the self and the brain are one and the same. Not so. The brain is a very complex and capable computer. The self is the user. There are aspects of the way the computer functions that make it very efficient, but can also lead to poor judgments and decision making if one is not aware of them. One to be very aware of is rationalization.

The brain doesn't like uncertainty or not knowing. It wants an answer and it wants one now. It will make one up if it has to. If you suddenly experience fear, the brain wants to know why. The emotion is supposed to give the brain a heads up to something that has changed in the environment or situation. If you look around and take stock of the situation and there is no obvious answer, the brain will move from facts to possibilities and it will keep piecing bits of data together until it has something plausible.

The problem is the brain will find an answer whether the alarm bell was legitimate or not. If you're experiencing fear or anxiety due to a chemical imbalance and not due to any real danger, your brain will find something for you to be afraid of. It works the same with depression. If you're in depressive mode your brain will make mountains out of molehills for you and give you something, many things, to be depressed about.

Awareness is your counter-measure. Objective, logical analysis is your best tool. Your brain and your emotions are your advisers. You are the boss, or at least you're supposed to be. If you've been derelict in your duties, take back the reigns and get back to driving.