Appreciating positive emotions like joy and compassion are known to improve mental and physical health. But for people with bipolar disorder, being “up” can often be a big negative.
In a new article to be published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, psychologist Dr. June Gruber reviews and updates the science and behavioral characteristics of bipolar mania.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme periods of positive mood, or mania. When a person is in a manic state, they have increased energy, sleep less, and experience extreme self-confidence.
For many of us, these characteristics would seem desirable. Sadly, in bipolar disorder, people often take dangerous risks, run up credit card debt, and wreak havoc in marriages.
“The fact that positive emotion has gone awry is something unique about bipolar disorder, as almost all other emotional disorders are characterized by difficulties in negative emotions,” Gruber said.
Gruber pointed out those positive emotions are problematic for people with bipolar disorder even when they’re not experiencing mania.
A unique characteristic of bipolar disorder is that even when people are in remission from bipolar, they still experience more positive emotions than people who have never had bipolar disorder.
More positive emotions may not sound like a bad thing, but there are times when these positive emotions aren’t appropriate.
“In our work, those with bipolar disorder continue to report greater positive emotions whether it’s a positive film, very sad film clip of a child crying over his father’s death, and even disgusting films involving someone digging through feces” said Gruber.
In more recent work Gruber and her colleagues have found they still feel good even if a close romantic partner tells them something sad face to face, they still feel good. “It’s rose-colored glasses gone too far.”
Gruber believes her work can help researchers determine individuals at high risk for relapse. People who have a lot of positive emotions, even at inappropriate times, may provide a window into possible early warning signs, she said.
In a study of healthy college students who had never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Gruber found that those who showed these same high levels of positive emotions that persisted across positive, negative and neutral situations were at higher risk for bipolar disorder.
According to experts, not all emotions are alike in bipolar disorder; in fact, individuals with bipolar disorder seem to have particular kinds of positive emotions. They report feeling more achievement and self-focused emotions like pride and rewarding feelings like joy.
“This mirrors early clinical observations and more recent scientific work,” Gruber said—that people with bipolar disorder set very high, ambitious goals, are sensitive to rewards, and in periods of mania, some believe they have special powers.
Gruber believes that feeling “up” or being too “high on life” can be problematic even for people who don’t have bipolar disorder.
“Although positive emotions are generally good for us, when they take extreme forms or when they’re experienced in the wrong context, the benefits of positive emotion begin to unravel,” she said.
The goal, then: “Experience it in moderation, in the right place and time.”