Bipolar blogger Natasha Tracy offers exclusive insight into the world of bipolar disorder.See all posts »
Recognizing Facial Emotions in Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar blogger Natasha Tracy helps explain why people with bipolar disorder may have difficulty identifying a person's mood by facial expression, but also offers hopeful advice on how to overcome this.
People with bipolar disorder suffer from extreme versions of emotions. Aspects of mania or hypomania may be like an average emotion, but they are that emotion amped up to a level 11.
Depression isn’t sadness—it’s sadness on steroids.
So perhaps then, it’s not surprising that people with bipolar disorder have been shown to have reduced sensitivity to facial emotions. In other words, in tests, a face has to be really angry before a person with bipolar disorder will label the emotion as “angry.” People with bipolar disorder who are in the depressed phase may also rate faces with a more negative emotion. For example, a neutral face may be interpreted as sad. Even people with bipolar disorder in the euthymic phase (not manic, hypomanic, or depressed) show a decreased ability to recognize facial emotions.
Researchers call these “emotional processing abnormalities” and these abnormalities have been seen all the way from the brain scan level to the verbal, observational level. Moreover, these deficits have been seen in children with bipolar disorder at the same levels as adults, suggesting that these deficits are as aspect of the disease and not related to disease duration or severity. (One of the bipolar risk genes, CACNA1C, has also been associated with impaired facial emotion recognition.)
These emotional processing abnormalities may be why “global functioning” scores of those with bipolar, often even in remission, are low. (Global functioning refers to, “social, occupational, and psychological functioning.”) A deficit in the ability to recognize emotion in others may explain low social functioning. If we don’t know how people are feeling, how can be react appropriately to them? We even seem to have trouble identifying what emotions we would have in a given situation (although, given the randomness of bipolar disorder, this sort of sounds reasonable to me).
How to Beat Emotional Processing Abnormalities
Well, if the studies are right, the problem is in our brains so there’s not much that can be done about that. However, one study suggests people with bipolar disorder still have the ability to identify what others would feel in a given situation.
I find this promising because even if I can’t readily identify emotion as well as others, it seems I can use my empathy as a double-check to see what I think the person would be feeling in a given situation. I suspect this is a learned skill that we could all get better with over time.
So it might be the long way around but I think people with bipolar disorder can outthink their own brain deficits. And, as someone with a brain disorder, I consider that very promising indeed.