Problems Thinking - A New Bipolar Conversation

John McManamy Health Guide
  • If only we inherited brains in decent working order. Mood is only one small part of it. Thinking seems to be the major challenge. Charlotte writes:

    I am used to gathering facts and making decisions based on my collection of information.  It is hard to gather those facts when I am "fight-or-flight" system is on overdrive.  When I tried to learn how to run the register at work, I was under such pressure to perform the tasks correctly that I would feel trapped, like a deer in headlights, and I couldn't think how to proceed.  I had to be shown how to process returns and complicated transactions over and over.  Of course this bit into my self-esteem.  I was so frustrated because I know I am smart.

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    Charlotte was responding to my post from two weeks ago, Issues in Bipolar: Problems Thinking.

    “Even when euthymic,” I wrote, “we have a lot to contend with.” Whole brain networks get compromised. Among other things, we over-react in stressful situations, which overwhelms the thinking parts of the brain. Even simple processing tasks pose major challenges. As I concluded:

    I, for one, certainly do not take a fully operational brain for granted. Every second I feel the reception coming in loud and clear is a gift from God. My life is organized at squeezing every micro-unit of productive output from these precious moments.

    At last count, there were 25 very thoughtful comments to my post. KC noted:

    Struggling to squeeze as much productivity out of those "as good as it gets" moments has been a way of life for my daughter. It has always been very frustrating for her (and very painful to watch from the sidelines).

    Eicanfly is worried about a deteriorating brain:

    I notice my "relapses" are more severe and my cognitive abilities and memory deteriorate a little more after each one. It's so hard for me to follow healthy routines and relapse prevention plans because I have such a short attention span and forget where I put my plan or what I need to do.

    And MissChievous, who was hoping to resume her college studies, is absolutely discouraged:

    Why am I wasting the money if I'm doomed to a future of red ribbons tied around my fingers and no memory of why?  If this is a progressively worsening disease where I’m pre-destined to mentally Blue-Screen, then $56K is an investment in a Ponzi scheme.

    Lest we give up in despair, let me emphasize loud and clear: Although our situations may be challenging, they not hopeless. Bipolar is not a deteriorating brain condition such as Alzheimer’s. Nor does it involve a near-total collapse in cognitive function such as schizophrenia. Yes, constant exposure to stress can indeed blow out our neural circuitry to the point of seeming no-return (the kindling effect), but this is countered by the well-established principle of neuroplasticity that takes into account our brains' limitless capacity to lay down new connections and thus heal.

    The principle of neuroplasticity is best explained in Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight.” Two readers cited Dr Taylor in their comments, and I mentioned her work in two fairly recent posts, Using Sleep In Our Recovery and Scientific Challenge to the Bipolar Diagnosis. I will referring a lot more to Dr Taylor in future posts.

  • Another very important consideration: Yes, our brains may have an unfortunate tendency to go on the fritz, but at the same time our performance specs tend to be off the charts. The brain science is showing that our grey matter is set up to process information in startling ways to come up with creative solutions that leave the poor pedestrian general population for dead.

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    It’s almost as if our brains were Ferraris - machines with unbelievable capabilities but very easy to crash. This leads us to the central question: How do we optimize performance?

    A number of readers suggested our meds may be our greatest obstacle, whether in inducing mental sluggishness or in structurally altering our brains to the point where solving Problem A creates Problems B and C and so on. But less-is-more may work for many. Louisasslow, who is on a cocktail of low-dose meds, reports keeping his head when his friend suffered a heart attack and saving her life by doing all the right things.

    I have commented extensively here on BipolarConnect on the need to educate our doctors on the dangers of over-medicating us, and it is well worth revisiting this topic. In the meantime, Cretin observed, with tongue-in-cheek:

    In all, we have more brain farts than average people. It would be nice to know why. What are the mental "beans" that cause them? We need a Beano for the brain.

    Two readers seemed to have come up their own personal Beano’s. BiPoPastor found vitamin B-12 did wonders for his memory while Charlotte discovered that propranolol - a blood pressure med used for stage fright - helped her enormously in situations where she was required to perform new tasks.

    Then there are the lifestyle considerations. Shelly in her comment alluded to mindfulness, which I frequently champion here at BipolarConnect. Abdullah also referred to mindfulness, along with a healthy diet, meditation, yoga, visualizations, spirituality, support, and exercise (all on my “revisit” list).

    Clearly, you have spoken. We have a lot of ground to cover, a whole host of topics to discuss. Stay tuned ...

Published On: August 28, 2011