High and Low Social Energy: The Real Polar in Bipolar?
I’ve been doing a lot of sleeping the past several days. One reason is that my entire holistic mind-body connection is demanding time-out after a nine-month period that has involved a new book, a marriage break-up, a cross-country shift in residence, a major international award, a busy travel schedule that has included public speaking, and a singularly productive writing stretch, not to mention a virtual gabfest of neurons cooking up a list of things for me to do for the next three or four hundred years.
But the proximate cause of my current malaise is last week’s NAMI annual convention. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, introvert is my default setting, together with low-grade chronic depression, introspection, and some social anxiety. But I also perk up around people and can become enviably hypomanic.
At NAMI, I was animated and highly engaged, but at the cost of draining my psychic battery. By the time I returned home, the power light was off.
Several years ago, I polled my Newsletter readers. I asked them take an online Myers-Briggs and email me the results, along with their diagnosis. It turned out that 83 percent of us were introverts, an almost exact reverse of the general population. Keep in mind that we bipolars are depressed way more than we are manic. These results are pretty much in line with surveys conducted at the University of North Carolina.
Particularly revealing was that 17 percent of us tested INFJ and 14 percent INFP, the "mystics" and "dreamers," respectively, the true social oddballs of the world that together comprise but two percent of the general population. The only category of extravert over-represented in my poll were the ENFJs, the "visionaries" (think Einstein) who would fit right in with us mystics and dreamers (I’m a card-carrying INFP).
The world owes us an eternal debt of gratitude for coming up with fire, literature, the Sistine Chapel, and E=MC2, not to mention the didgeridoo and iPhone and other cool things. In return, our neighbors show their appreciation by treating us as outsiders. Fitting in doesn’t come easy. We use up a lot of energy trying to get along.
Jung was onto this when he came up with the concept of introvert and extravert. The terms don’t necessarily relate to feeling shy or being outgoing. Rather, they are about our sense of energy renewal or energy depletion in being around people or being alone.
In addition, our illness adds layers of complications. I see it all the time in support groups - people who turn up at seven barely able to breathe and at nine are ready to give the rest of us salsa lessons. This may account for the true polarity in bipolar.
The combination of introversion and a mood disorder, not to mention our oddball dispositions, can be deadly. We have the tendency to destructively isolate, which invites depression in. Then, when depressed, we tend not to reach out, which can send us spiraling further down.
Often, we do need to take a time-out, and there are some interesting theories that hibernation and depression may be biologically connected. But we also need to be mindful of the fact that the times we most want to stay inside the house may be the times we most need to be outside the house.
But I am also learning that the reverse applies. Even when I am the life of the party, I need to be aware that my mind is engaged in an energy-consuming tug of war with my underlying natural introversion. Basically, my little Energizer bunny doesn’t just keep going and going and going.
Perhaps our natural introversion is what saves a lot of us from cycling up into mania. Our motor thankfully runs down before we can get into too much trouble. If we’re smart, we gracefully poop out and go home. Far too many of us, however, resort to artificial power supplies in the form of street drugs and caffeine. Or we foolishly fight off sleep, which is the royal road to a manic episode.
Our compensatory poop-out mechanism may overshoot us into depression. Keep in mind bipolar depression is generally different from unipolar depression. The unipolars tend to veer toward melancholic and sad. We bipolars lean toward "anergic" and leaden. The unipolars tend to sleep too little while we bipolars can’t get out of bed. The unipolars don’t want to eat. We bipolars, on the other hand, crave quick-energy sugars and carbs.
This may explain why SSRIs generally don’t work for bipolar depression. Our listlessness and lack of motivation point to a dopamine depletion rather than a lack of serotonin. Forget about mood, for the time being. What really seems to be happening is we have shifted from too much energy to too little.
Thankfully, my schedule allows for a few extra days of time-out, and I’m in the perfect location up here in the mountains to stop and smell the sage. I am not depressed, and that’s the point. I’m not pushing my luck. In another day or two, I will be back to full-strength.
But there will be situations that will call for me doing the very opposite, for getting out amongst people when I would rather curl up in bed. I need the wisdom to make the right call.
I can’t wait for the experts to come up with definitive answers. I have to figure this out right now. Thankfully, my present state of low social energy puts me in the perfect headspace for some serious introspecting. Now that I am aware of the sliders on the control panel, it won’t take me long to make the right adjustments.
Be smart. Know thyself. Live well "
John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.