bipolar parent

Why Hyperfocus Can be a Form of Self-Harm

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Brains function in weird ways sometimes.

Because bipolar disorder runs along similar pathways to ADHD, people with either mental health challenge tend to have difficulties with focusing on tasks in front of them.

When faced with a task our brains deem “boring,” we get distracted and do anything else to avoid the task.

However, sometimes, when enraptured with a project that engages our brains in just the right way, we can enter a zen state of hyperfocus, or “flow.”

In a flow state, everything but the task fades away. I myself have taken advantage of flow states many, many times, having written fanfiction in a blitz of 2200 words per hour or cross-stitched massive projects for hours on end without noticing my hands getting sore.

The neurochemistry of a flow state is super interesting. During a flow state, your brain is flooded with endorphins–nature’s heroin–and all tension in your body disappears, only to be replaced with pleasure.

I usually listen to music with noise-canceling headphones when I’m trying to concentrate a task. One way I can tell I’ve entered a flow state–aside from the massive amount of productivity–is that I completely tune out my music.

You don’t have to have a mental disorder to take advantage of a flow state, though they are common in people with bipolar disorder and ADHD, especially during times of bipolar hypomania and mania.

And trust me, flow states feel good. I love knocking my tasks off my to-do list and producing hundreds of words per hour. I love the endorphin rush I get from conquering my tasks. And I love how I feel afterwards, loose and relaxed and accomplished.

But how can this be a bad thing?

March is Self-Harm Awareness Month, celebrated in the US, Canada, and most of Western Europe. During the awareness month, mental health organizations around the world concentrate on informing the general public about non-suicidal self-harm, especially in youth.

Which why it’s a good time to explain how a hyperfocused, uber-productive state can be a form of self-harm.

Self-harm? Really?

But hyperfocus can be a good thing! You might be thinking. How can such a productive state be a form of self-harm?

It’s true that hyperfocus can be an excellent state to be in for productivity reasons. But hyperfocus can absolutely end up doing more harm than good.

Let me explain. When I’m laser-focused on a desirable activity, I narrow my attention down to what I’m doing in the moment to the exclusion of all else. I neglect to eat, drink, or even use the bathroom. I can’t recognize the flow of time, so it passes without my recognition.

And I get wired from the creativity and endorphin rush, making sleep difficult, which is dangerous for a person with bipolar disorder. Especially bipolar I, where manic episodes are more intense. If I don’t sleep, I quickly trip into mania, which helps me hyperfocus, which makes me manic… It’s a cycle.

When I’m hyperfocused, I not only neglect my own physical and mental needs, I also neglect the needs of my children. I get so wrapped up in projects, I forget to feed my kids until they not-so-gently remind me to do so.

I also hate people interrupting my flow states. When I’m jerked out of a groove, I get irritable and snappish. I have trouble pulling away. Changing gears to do things like “feed the five-year-old” is extremely difficult for me.

So flow states, though they feel great, are often sources of dysfunction for me–precisely because they feel so wonderful.

How to Manage Flow State Dysfunction

Even though I acknowledge these serious consequences from my dysfunctional patterns, I am reluctant to give up my flow states. They are addictive and a lot of my self-worth is wrapped up in my productivity, something I’m working on.

So while I’m keeping the flow states (when I can enter them), I’m setting limits on how long I produce in one.

Someone else watches my daughter from 1pm to 3pm on weekdays so I can study. This means I have a hard deadline to stop. I must stop working at 3pm.

And I am practicing patience by reordering my priorities. My children are more important than the studying, blogging, painting, sewing, or writing fanfiction–the sources of work or pleasure that sometimes trigger a flow state for me.

So I keep my children’s needs at the forefront of my mind and pull away from my screens thirty minutes before set meal times (8am, 12pm, and 5:30pm), so I can properly feed my kids.

We aim to eat at the same times each day. This regular schedule of cooking and eating meals means I have prescribed times to work on other things and maybe enter a flow state.

And I try not to work on fun, creative things–where I’m more likely to enter a flow state–until all my work is done first. I hold myself accountable and keep myself honest about what I accomplish on a daily basis, which helps with self-worth.

Limiting myself works for me. It may work for you, too. Try setting up a regular schedule of work, pleasure, and attending to your physical needs and the needs of others you’re responsible for. And set alarms if you need them–several if you’re in the habit of ignoring them.

Final Thoughts

Flow states–or hyperfocused states–feel wonderful.

They’re an endorphin rush for sure. While everyone can get into a groove, flow states are especially tempting for people with bipolar disorder and ADHD, who usually have trouble concentrating on and motivating themselves to perform day-to-day activities.

People with mental disorders need to be careful that flow states don’t become dysfunctional, which is more common than you might think. What’s more, if you find yourself entering flow states more and more often lately, track your other symptoms, as you may be entering a manic episode.

But you don’t have to give up flow states entirely. Just limit yourself.

Set alarms. Work on a regular schedule with hard stops. Hold yourself accountable for finishing work first before embarking on fun activities that are more likely to trigger a flow state.

I know it’s hard. If you’re anything like me, you’d prefer to be in a hyperfocused state all the time. I get it.

But you deserve better than your own neglect. And if you have kids, they do, too.

You can do this.

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bipolar parent

Can Early Symptoms Predict Bipolar Disorder? Evidence Shows Differing Patterns of Risk Factors

pills2
A picture of pink pills in a bubble pill container. Credit to flickr.com user Kris A. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Two patterns of antecedent or “prodromal” psychiatric symptoms may help to identify young persons at increased risk of developing bipolar disorder (BD), according to a new analysis in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry.

Early signs of BD can fall into a relatively characteristic “homotypic” pattern, consisting mainly of symptoms or other features associated with mood disorders; or a “heterotypic” pattern of other symptoms including anxiety and disruptive behavior. Environmental risk factors and exposures can also contribute to BD risk, according to the analysis by Ciro Marangoni, MD, at the Department of Mental Health, Mater Salutis Hospital, Legnato, Italy; Gianni L. Faedda, MD, Director of the Mood Disorder Center of New York, NY, and Co-Chairman of a Task Force of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders on this topic; and Professor Ross J. Baldessarini, MD, Director of the International Consortium for Bipolar & Psychotic Disorders Research of the Mailman Research Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

The authors reviewed and analyzed data from 39 studies of prodromal symptoms and risk factors for later development of BD. Their analysis focused on high-quality evidence from prospective studies in which data on early symptoms and risk factors were gathered before BD was diagnosed.

BD is commonly preceded by early depression or other symptoms of mental illness, sometimes years before BD develops, as indicated by onset of mania or hypomania. Nevertheless, the authors note that “the prodromal phase of BD remains incompletely characterized, limiting early detection of BD and delaying interventions that might limit future morbidity.”

The evidence reviewed suggested two patterns of early symptoms that “precede and predict” later BD. A homotypic pattern consisted of affective or mood-associated symptoms that are related to, but fall short of, standard diagnostic criteria for BD: for example, mood swings, relatively mild symptoms of excitement, or major depression, sometimes severe and with psychotic symptoms.
The authors note that homotypic symptoms have “low sensitivity” — that is, most young people with these mood symptoms do not later develop BD. However, this symptom pattern also had “moderate to high specificity” — homotypic symptoms do occur in many patients who go on to develop BD.

The heterotypic pattern consisted of other types of prodromal symptoms, such as early anxiety and disorders of attention or behavior. This pattern had low sensitivity and specificity: relatively few patients with such symptoms develop BD, while many young people without heterotopic symptoms do develop BD.

The study findings also associate several other factors with an increased risk of developing BD, including preterm birth, head injury, drug exposures (especially cocaine), physical or sexual abuse, and other forms of stress. However, for most of these risk factors, both sensitivity and specificity are low.

Although many elements of the reported patterns of prodromal symptoms and risk factors have been identified previously, the study increases confidence that they are related to the later occurrence of BD. The researchers note that the findings of high-quality data from prospective studies are “encouragingly similar” to those of previous retrospective and family-risk studies.

“There was evidence of a wide range of [psychiatric] symptoms, behavioral changes, and exposures with statistically significant associations with later diagnoses of BD,” the authors conclude. With further study, the patterns of prodromal symptoms and risk factors may lead to new approaches to identifying young persons who are likely to develop BD, and might benefit from early treatment. The investigators add that predictive value might be even higher with combinations of multiple risk factors, rather than single predictors.

Materials provided by Wolters Kluwer Health

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bipolar parent

Bipolar? Your Brain is Wired to Make Poor Decisions

brain
Credit to flickr.com user TZA. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Struggling to plan and make decisions while depressed or manic are common problems. But have you ever had trouble doing the same while relatively stable? New research may show why.

 

Researchers examined ninety patients’–forty-five with bipolar disorder in stable moods, and forty-five controls without bipolar disorder–brains, and discovered that, in the bipolar sufferers, there are certain areas of the brain that have reduced activation regardless of mood due to structural damage.

This is the first study to look at the relationship between functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) and structural MRIs in bipolar disorder. The scientists found that the patients with bipolar suffered from reduced cortical thickness and thus had less activity in areas of the brain that controlled impulses, or contributed to making decisions.

The study was published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, and conducted by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles.

As this is the first study to find a link between structure and function, the results are exciting. The research proves that bipolar disorder damages your brain. You’re not stupid; your brain is just wired to make impulsive decisions and be poor at planning.

The scientists who conducted the study hope that their research will be used in future intervention studies. Good news!

bipolar parent

Bipolar Disorder is Toxic–Literally

neurons
Credit to flickr.com user Anders Sandberg. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Apparently the blood of people with bipolar disorder is toxic to their brains. Let me explain.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder characterized by changes in mood and energy levels, affecting a sufferer’s ability to function. People affected by the disorder endure periods of both mania–with elevated mood, irritability, and rapid thoughts–and depression.

Lately, researchers have begun classifying patients as early or late-stage. Early-stage patients have dealt with fewer mood episodes; late-stage patients have dealt with more frequent and more severe episodes.

A recent study compared neurons exposed to blood serum from bipolar patients to neurons exposed to blood serum from healthy controls. Researchers Fabio Klamt and Flávio Kapczinski found that the first neurons suffered a significant loss in the density of neurites, which estimate the number of brain connections. However, neurons exposed to serum from early-stage bipolar disorder patients showed no difference in neurite density compared to the healthy controls’. The scientists also found that, except for those neurons exposed to serum from patients at very late stages of the disease, the number of neurons weren’t that different between samples.

Previous studies have shown that people with bipolar disorder have lower neurotrophins–proteins that promote brain growth. Also lowered is the early-growth response 3 (EGR3), a protein which helps the brain cope with stressors such as environmental changes and overstimulation. In addition, another study showed that bipolar patients have abnormally low levels of chemokines–proteins that signal other cells, so reactions to stimuli are slower.

So, what does that all mean? In short: researchers have found definitive proof that the blood of people with bipolar disorder is toxic to their brains. The more mood episodes a person has, the fewer brain connections he or she will create, and the slower their brains will grow. People in later stages of the disease also produce more cells which impair the brain’s ability to deal with environmental changes, inflammation, and stress.

Further studies will concentrate on creating drugs which can offset the toxicity of the bipolar patients’ blood.