Bipolar Mania: Too Much of a Good Thing

The ability to feel happiness and experience other positive emotions is usually seen as a personality strength.  Positive emotions motivate us to achieve our goals, allow us to enjoy life, help us maintain fulfilling relationships and reduce the effects of stress.  Is there such a thing as too much happiness?  A new field of mental health research is looking into this question in order to determine if an excess of positive emotions can be an early indicator of future dysfunction.

Psychologist June Gruber is one of the researchers studying the link between positive emotion and bipolar disorder.  In August, 2011 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Gruber describes the problems associated with mania, which is the clinical term for the extreme positive mood swings that are often part of bipolar disorder.  People who are having a manic episode experience racing thoughts, elevated energy levels and sleep deprivation.  They feel extreme amounts of self-confidence.  With this self-confidence comes a loss of judgment, causing people who are suffering from mania to take risks, incur credit card debt and put marriages and relationships at risk.  Mania’s heightened positive emotion are also associated with substance abuse and binge eating.

Mania is a unique condition because it’s characterized by difficulties with positive emotions, while the vast majority of emotional disorders are the result of negative emotions.  For example, depression is associated with sadness and anxiety is associated with fear.  Both of these disorders focus on negative emotional cues, while those affected by bipolar disorder often pay more attention to positive emotional cues.

Gruber’s research has found that positive emotions of all type are a problem for people with bipolar disorder, even when they’re not part of a manic episode.  People with bipolar disorder experience more positive emotions than those who don’t have the disorder, even when their condition is in remission.  Why is this a problem?  In experiments involving people with bipolar disorder, inappropriately positive emotions were reported even after watching a sad or disturbing film or being given sad news from a close friend.  According to Gruber, “It’s rose-colored glasses gone too far.”

Researchers have also found that the positive emotions experienced by people with bipolar disorder tend to be self-focused and related to pride about self-achievement.  Emotions that involve other people, such as compassion and love, are reported less often.  People with bipolar disorder often set ambitious goals for themselves and are sensitive to success and rewards.  In periods of mania, they may even believe that they possess special qualities and powers.  This type of positive emotion can cause problems in many areas of a person’s life, including work, relationships and finances.

Contact our treatment center for information about bipolar disorder treatment. We primarily address this issue when it accompanies a primary diagnosis of chemical dependency.  However, with our 25 years of experience treating addiction and dual diagnosis we are well equipped to make the appropriate referral for your situation.