A Case of Love Bipolar
So since it’s valentines day and love is in the air I thought I would write a little blog to talk about love and mental health. A lot of people have asked me how my bipolar affects my love life and that question is answered in my video blog ‘How Does Bipolar Affect Your Love Life?’ but here I wanted to talk about love and how it affects our chemistry in general.
As someone with bipolar I experience episodes of mania/hypomania and depression. These episodes affect my brain chemistry and I manage this with an antipsychotic drug called quetapine. Episodes are caused by an imbalance in the brain chemistry and therefore it is imperative for me to do everything that I can to naturally manage these levels as meticulously as I can in my every day life.
So what happens when my brain is hit by the speeding freight train of love? To understand this, firstly we need to understand what is love? Love is, very basically, a naturally occurring drug that heightens your dopamine and oxytocin levels. Let’s break that down… Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical released by neurons to send a signal to other nerve cells, strongly related to the reward centre of the brain. Dopamine is what keeps you alert and motivated, so an over abundance of dopamine can lead to mania/hypomania but a lack of it can induce the effects of depression (for more information on dopamine click here). Very few neurons actually make dopamine so it’s important when you know you have an imbalance to manage this as best you can which can be done mainly by diet and exercise. For more information on this have a look at my upcoming ebook.
Oxytocin is a hormone that is known as the ‘love hormone’ or the ‘hug hormone’ as it impacts what is known as ‘pro-social behaviours’ such as relaxation, trust and bonding. It’s most apparent under stress conditions and modulates fear and anxiety by increasing the salience of social situations causing the individual to pay closer attention to the socially relevant stimuli. Oxytocin is one of the hormones that is released when we experience something pleasurable or good, like receiving a gift or getting a hug from someone we like. It stimulates feelings of pleasure, connectivity and calm and to put that into perspective, Oxytocin levels surge during orgasm and these properties are also why it can be linked to addictive behaviours (for more information on Oxytocin click here).
So if Dopamine and Oxytocin are two of the main things that are released in our bodies when we are in love, then that explains the pleasure and the attachment to what is causing us to feel this way. It also explains why heartbreak makes us feel literal pain and the negative effects of chemical withdrawal.
As someone with bipolar who has to constantly be acutely aware of my body’s chemical imbalances, love poses an unanticipated chemical reaction that takes time and effort to adjust to. In mania/hypomania some people, like me, experience obsessive thoughts that result in behaviours. If love comes along at this time in our episode then it is highly likely that the chemical rise of dopamine and oxytocin will trigger us into higher obsessive behaviour about the person we are ‘in love’ with. This takes us into the debate of is it love or mental obsession?
I have been in this situation and all I recommend is that you wait it out. I have fallen in love and also broken up with someone during a hypomanic episode and I was constantly worried that what I was experiencing was just manic obsession or dissociative personality issue rather than genuine emotions. The worry and constant overthinking made me feel even worse, I felt like I couldn’t tell the difference between the bipolar and my true self. I spent hours trying to analyse what was real and what was just my mental health, but all you can do is remember that episodes don’t last forever. Just be super self aware that you are in an episode and that you know your chemicals are temporarily imbalanced. Be absolutely open and honest with yourself and with the other person if you can. What you may feel in mania/hypomania isn’t always what you will feel after the episode is over. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you can’t fall in love with someone whilst in an episode, of course you can and that can be a beautiful and genuine thing. What I’m saying is, be aware of what is happening to your mind and body and take action to keep it real until the episode is over. Mania/hypomania will heighten all your feelings and in some cases to the point that you can’t cope with the onslaught of emotions (for more on this, read my blog ‘Why I Cried’).
On the other side of this we have love when you are in a depressive episode. At this time your dopamine levels are very low to start with so when love comes along it provides a boost. On the surface this seems like a great thing, but again it’s about being super self-aware. If love boosts your chemical levels when you are depressed, you have to make sure that you are interested in the person because you genuinely want them and like them and not because they temporarily make you feel good or at the very least, take away the negative feelings of loneliness, lack of motivation, self doubt and other depression related things. I have seen too many times people in depression who ‘fall in love’ and suddenly everything in the world is focused on the person they are in love with. This is not because of love, this is because being able to focus on anything at all is precious in this state and being able to focus on something that is giving you a chemical boost in a time when your body is not functioning properly is even easier. When your body chemicals come back within a normal range, then the chemical boost this person is giving you will start to minimise.
Now please don’t misunderstand me here, again, I am in no way saying that you can’t fall in love when you’re in an episode. What I am saying is that you need to be very careful and take your time to understand yourself and your own body chemistry. It’s important to be aware of the reactions and imbalances that are happening and so then when you are back to your baseline, always reassess how you feel. Heartbreak is devastating and the high that you felt before could in some cases become a low that triggers you into another episode. Heartbreak stimulates cortisol, the stress hormone that controls your ‘fight or flight’ response. Your body may not understand what causes the problems but it will react in the same way: heartbreak and being chased by a sabre tooth tiger will have the same stress effect, the same way that combating a drug addiction and suddenly having low levels of dopamine and oxytocin will create a ‘withdrawal’ pain state for your body and mind.
With that said, if you are in love, since it’s valentines day use this to your advantage. Though I don’t believe in the commercial aspect of this holiday, I do believe that giving a gift, showing affection and making a gesture to show your love will boost the oxytocin and dopamine levels of your partner, which, chemical jargon aside, will make them feel happy and that’s the most beautiful thing in the world.