It’s that time of year when everyone is thinking about resolutions. Losing weight, exercising more, spending more time with your family. These are all examples of goals people set for themselves when the year starts winding down and a new one begins. New year, new start. Some people make many resolutions, some only a single one. Some actually complete their resolutions while most forget what theirs were by the time the holidays roll around again. But, if you have bipolar disorder, you may need to proceed with caution.
There are positive aspects of goal setting. Goals help provide motivation, which can get you going if you have no other intrinsic motivation you can rely on. Setting goals can give you a realistic idea of where you are in regards to a certain aspect of your life. When you’re receiving positive feedback, goals can actually help you perform better. This can provide even more motivation. The cycle continues.
The reward cycle is flawed.
The problem with that cycle is that it can have more of an impact on people with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder patients have what’s called “elevated reward sensitivity.” This basically means that the idea of getting any type of reward is over-hyped. It happens even in between episodes.
Then the process of achieving a goal becomes most important. More so than those without bipolar disorder, those with it tie achieving their goals to their self-worth. “If I don’t succeed, it’s because I’m a bad person.” This is instead of “If I don’t succeed, maybe the bar was set too high or there was a flaw in the process.”
Despite the overdrive to meet goals and gain rewards, when those goals are met, people with bipolar disorder don’t feel any happier than those without it.
Dreaming big may induce mania.
The good news for employers, coaches, teachers or whoever is looking for someone willing to work hard is that people with bipolar disorder appear to work harder and longer to achieve their goals. The bad news is for the people who actually suffer from bipolar disorder.
There is a state of hypomania that is subclinical in which people with bipolar disorder can thrive. You have more energy and higher creativity. You can feel more outgoing and have a more positive attitude. It’s a state of mind that most people don’t mind riding for a while.
The problem is, that the mild hypomania that underlies the goal-oriented behavior can lead to full-fledged mania. Testing the reward system cycle in individuals can predict the chances of someone developing bipolar disorder, progressing from bipolar II disorder to bipolar I disorder and developing bipolar II disorder from cyclothymia.
Even if the mild hypomanic state doesn’t develop into full manic state, it can still cause problems.
When people with bipolar disorder get fixated on goal achievement, they tend to change their behavior patterns. Staying up late, forgetting medication, experiencing overstimulation or any life-altering event can trigger mania. This includes things that you might not normally associate with “goals” like marriage or having a baby.
It get’s harder to say “when.”
People with bipolar disorder don’t just feel the same amount of happiness despite the higher drive than neurotypicals, they also don’t take as much time to enjoy their accomplishments. It’s natural to take a step back and admire your work when you’ve met a goal. You deserve a pat on the back, but with bipolar disorder that pause is a lot more brief. Being overly goal-oriented means moving on to the next goal almost immediately.
Despite being able to move on from a success, people with bipolar disorder don’t have the ability to walk away from obstacles as easily. In fact, being met with frustration leads to being overly-fixated, diminishing the ability to walk away.
Not only do people with bipolar disorder attach success to self-worth, holding oneself to a higher standard is also an issue. So, when failure does occur, people with bipolar disorder react more strongly than those without.
This attitude of negative thought processes is actually a sign of vulnerability to depression, which opens up a whole other cycle.
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Photo credit: Jesse CourteManche