Bipolar type 1 (BD) is characterized by periods of elation and extremely positive mood that is referred to as mania. These episodes usually countered by extended periods of depression. Although there has been extensive research on the depressed episodes, especially in comparison to the low moods experienced by people with major depression (MDD), there has been less attention given to the positive mood states of BD. These manic episodes can be the most devastating for individuals with BD and those close to them. During manic episodes, people behave erratically and take risks that they might not otherwise take. Some people with BD have reported spending their life savings, having dangerous sexual encounters, or binging on drugs or alcohol during manic states. As damaging as these episodes can be, the mechanisms that cause these euphoric but sometimes catastrophic episodes are not yet understood.
June Gruber of the Department of Psychology at Yale University in Connecticut has devoted much of her time to exploring the underlying conditions that contribute to BD. In her most recent study, Gruber chose to make positive affect the focus. She recruited 29 participants with BD, 29 with MDD, and 30 with no history of either condition and exposed them to individual cues designed to induce positive and negative affect. Gruber then assessed how long the mood states were maintained by the participants and examined how likely they were to ruminate on positive versus negative emotions. She also gathered baseline working memory levels to determine what influence working memory capacity had on mood maintenance.
Gruber found that prior to the study, the BD and MDD participants demonstrated impairments in overall cognitive functioning, but only the BD participants showed impairments in working memory. After they were exposed to negative and positive stimuli, it was clear that the BD participants were able to maintain positive affect for longer periods than both the control or MDD groups. However, they were unable to maintain negative mood states. Surprisingly, Gruber also discovered that the control group and the MDD group were relatively similar in their levels of negative mood maintenance. This suggests that individuals with BD could have deficits in negative emotional regulation that cause them to experience short periods of low mood and persistent periods of positive mood. Gruber added, “We suggest that future studies compare BD and MDD participants who score high and low on symptom measures to properly examine the relative influence of symptoms on emotion regulation.”
Gruber, J., Purcell, A. L. , Perna, M. J., Mikels, J. A. (2012). Letting go of the bad: Deficit in maintaining negative, but not positive, emotion in bipolar disorder. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029381
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