Advantages in Bipolar: No Longer If, But Why and How

I attended a great presentation at the APA annual conference in San Francisco about Achievement, Innovation, and Leadership in the Affective Spectrum. Four distinguished panelists gave presentations about their research into why people with bipolar disorder tend to exhibit advantages in some parts of their lives. They said it was the first time ever that the APA had such a discussion and it was a great honor to be a part of it.

First up was Sheri Johnson, PhD, who teaches at UC Berkeley and does basic research on mania. Her talk was about how people with bipolar disorder are more reactive to rewards and goals in their lives. They tend to work harder toward such goals and refuse to give up long after “normal” people do. Dr. Johnson is currently conducting studies to understand the greater reactivity to success in this population, using paradigms drawn from neuroimaging, emotion, information-processing, and impulsivity literatures. She is also considering other psychological traits that might relate to outcomes in bipolar disorder, including stress reactivity, emotion regulation, and social dominance. She believes that figuring out why mania is linked to success will lead to better ways to predict manic episodes.

Next, Terrence Ketter, MD, who teaches at Stanford School of Medicine and runs the Stanford Bipolar Disorders Clinic covered the relationship between creativity and bipolar with details from many studies. Inspired by his clinical work with exceptionally creative individuals, Dr. Ketter has developed a strong interest in the relationship of creativity and mood disorders. He shared the latest research trying to figure out why the link between bipolar and creativity is so strong.

Michael Freeman, MD, who teaches at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, has been working with executives and other high achievers with bipolar for fifteen years. He spoke on the relationship between bipolar temperament, innovation and entrepreneurship. Dr. Freeman says the temperament and leadership styles of passionate leaders can facilitate outstanding success or predispose to catastrophic failures depending on how they address the condition. Dr. Freeman’s experience shows that through proper treatment and coaching, bipolar can be an asset instead of a curse. He did not share any specific “how” information, but did mention my work and the need for studies to validate it and any other systems we can find.

Nassir Ghaemi, MD, is the director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Ghaemi is at the forefront of the movement to see a more inclusive perspective of bipolar that includes the positive aspects. His talk was full of background information for his book “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness.” The book is an investigation into the surprisingly deep correlation between mental illness and successful leadership, as seen through some of history’s greatest politicians, generals, and businesspeople. Like the others, he has been primarily looking for “why” bipolar is associated with so many positive outcomes while at the same time causing such devastation.

There was ample time for the two hundred or so doctors to discuss their thoughts at the end of the presentations. I asked if anyone had been looking into how to enable the positives while addressing the negatives and an interesting discussion ensued. Nobody else had begun to develop processes yet, but they saw working on “how” to create such outcomes as the next step. Dr. Ketter had a wise observation that part of the “how” includes doctors getting out of the way and allowing it to happen. He suggested that there needs to be a fine balance between allowing patients to explore such states and ensuring it is done safely. I completely agree with Dr. Ketter’s points about balance, but think the role of doctors and therapists needs to be much more than just getting out of the way; they play a critical role in facilitating the change in paradigm and have been instrumental in helping our clients achieve what I call Bipolar IN Order – the ability to experience bipolar as a positive while removing the negative aspects.

Having the honor of participating had a profound impact on me. Readers familiar with my work know that I have been pursuing techniques and processes for “how” since 2003. While I have been somewhat bombastic about the “if” in the past, this event has me convinced that I no longer need to argue whether the possibility exists; All four doctors made the argument much better than any of my attempts because they included “why” in their presentations. That frees me up to more fully focus on better processes for “how” to achieve it.

I had the opportunity to speak privately with Dr. Ghaemi after the event and he convinced me of the importance of “why.” He said research focused on why can be the bridge between “if” and “how.” It can validate the “how” while legitimizing the advantage concepts that are part of the “if.” I have ten years of working on “how” with thousands of people and I am very excited to see that so many experts are turning their attention to researching why the techniques work. This is the paradigm shift I have been pushing for.


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Tom Wootton founded Bipolar Advantage with the mission to help people with mental conditions shift their thinking and behavior so that they can lead extraordinary lives. His most recent work focuses on moving beyond recovery in bipolar disorder to what he calls Bipolar In Order.