As we discuss anxiety and anxiety management, we also want to take a look at the thing commonly called “mania.” Mania can hit anyone, since it can be induced by street drugs and by other causes as well as by the dynamics of one’s own racing, needy brain. But I want to focus on the way that it afflicts intelligent and creative people. That they are afflicted is beyond question. Research shows a linkage between “A” grades in school and “bipolar disorder,” between high test scores and “bipolar disorder,” and so on. There is plenty of evidence to support the contention that “mania” disproportionately affects smart and creative people.
One study involving 700,000 adults and reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry indicated that former straight-A students were four times more likely to be “bipolar” (or “manic-depressive”) than their peers. In another study individuals who scored the highest on tests for “mathematical reasoning” were at a 12-times greater risk for “contracting bipolar disorder.” Similar studies underline the linkage between creativity and “mania” and we have thousands of years of anecdotal evidence in support of the view that smart and creative people are often manic.
“Manic-depression” and “bipolar disorder” are in quotation marks in the previous paragraph because the current naming system used to describe “mental disorders” is suspect and perhaps so flawed as to be both useless and dangerous. The current naming system also leads to odd and wrong-headed hypotheses, for example “because you are bipolar you are creative” or “perhaps mania accounts for the higher test scores.” The answer is more straightforward. If you are intelligent and creative, you are inclined to have thoughts. Why would those thoughts not be inclined to race uncontrollably, especially if you felt yourself at an existential extremity with the very meaning of your life in question?
“Mania” in this instance is simply a racing brain driven by a powerful pressure, need or impulse. Anything that gets in the way of this seemingly forward motion—a physical obstacle, another person’s viewpoint, or a delay in the bus arriving—is viewed as a tremendous irritation. Hence the irritability so often associated with “mania.” This irritation makes perfect sense: if you must get on with it, whatever it is—if you must get your new series of paintings done—then nothing must get in the way.
It is this “must” that is at the heart of the matter. The “must” is the foot on the gas pedal that is driving your racing brain. There is an experience of emergency here, most often an existential emergency as the individual stares at nothingness and is petrified by the view. She must get away from that horrible feeling and with a kind of strangled laugh that mimics mirth but that isn’t mirth she turns to her brain for help. She is frightened and she is in anguish and to deal with that she shouts to her brain, “Get me out of here!” And her brain takes off, dreaming up every manner of scheme, activity, and desire.
All of the characteristic “symptoms” that we see in “mania,” including seemingly high spirits, heightened sexual appetite, high arousal levels, high energy levels, sweating, pacing, sleeplessness and, at its severest, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, paranoia, aggression and all sorts of wild plans and schemes, make perfect sense when viewed from the perspective that a powerful need has supercharged a brain inclined to generate thoughts. This thought machine has been revved up in the service of nothing less than the direst existential hunger, lack, or fear imaginable. All the rest follows.
What is the answer? It is in part the individual looking in the mirror, announcing that he must wrest control of his mind and his life, and practicing the techniques conventionally called mindfulness techniques. If an artist can’t do this work because her “mania” just can’t be mediated by her own efforts in the state in which she finds herself, then she may indeed be forced to resort to the conventional, unfortunate solution of “psychiatric medicine.” She may find that she needs lithium, anticonvulsants, calcium channel blockers, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, or some other chemical used to “treat mania” and with the power (though only sometimes, and always with a cost) to do that work for her.
In our updated understanding of what is going on, where we better understand how this wild ride came to be by virtue of the engines of intelligence, creativity and meaning need, we ask the individual, and demand of him if we love him, that he examine his reasons for racing and not feel so free to race. It is not a race that can be won, a truth that a creative manic knows somewhere in her being and a truth that brings with it additional sadness even as she races. Indeed, it is that sadness that she is fleeing as fast as she can, even as she is racing right toward it. It is like the Sufi tale of the disciple who flees town because he believes that Death is coming for him and races right to the place where Death is waiting. That is exactly where the manic also arrives, at “depression.”
The headline is as follows: if you are creative you are at a “substantially greater risk for mania.” This is too brief a look at this important subject but I hope that it gives you a glimpse of the issues and a hint at solutions.
More next week!
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