What Caused My Bipolar Disorder: Nature or Nurture?
I’ve often pondered whether bipolar is caused by nature or nurture and even researchers constantly examine the age-old question. The data largely shows that it’s often a mixture of both. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 16. My psychiatrist added anger control problems and psychotic features to my diagnosis at age 17. I love to ponder what part of my bipolar is nature, what’s nurture and what’s me?
Bipolar Caused by Nature
The nature argument for bipolar is straightforward for me. Both of my parent’s families have a history of depression, alcoholism, anxiety, anger and bipolar disorder. I don’t think it was a question of if I was going to have a problem, but more likely what would the disorder be and when would it come out. Endless studies show that bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are genetic and if these issues are in your family you have a higher risk of developing one. It’s similar to cancer, diabetes, heart problems and other health issues in that way.
Bipolar Caused by Nature and/or Nurture?
There are some blurry parts of my diagnosis — traits that are largely evident in my family and don’t necessarily need to be a part of bipolar disorder, but were for me. I’m discussing these factors, because they are a large part of the symptoms of my diagnosis.
Anger — there’s a long history of anger in my family. It was modeled in my parent’s home. It was modeled in my home. I don’t know if it was part of my nature or part of my nurturing, but it has been something I have had to constantly work on.
Anxiety — the nervousness in my family is palpable. Sometimes it comes out as over excitement and other times it comes out as extreme obsessions. We have a lot of anxiety. Recognizing the role anxiety plays in my moods has been vital to me being able to balance mania, depression, anger and psychotic features. But was my anxiety caused by nature or nurture? I don’t know.
Energy/impulsivity — everyone in my immediate family has an inordinately high level of energy. As a kid, we’d go on vacations where we’d hit four cities in four days. Even my extended family is capable of truly ridiculous amounts of travel, change and workloads. Energy and impulsive behavior certainly play a role in manic behavior. For my family members who don’t have a mental health disorder, their level of energy has resulted in them being extremely hard workers. Was this nature or nurture in me?
Alcohol — this is another issue that has a long history in my family. There are alcoholics on both sides. Using alcohol to cope with emotions was also modeled for me. I had alcohol abuse issues and focusing on where it came from — nature and nurture — allowed me to develop different ways to cope.
My Methods of Self-Nurturing My Bipolar: Nurture or Nature?
The reality for any parent is that when a child is born, he is his own person. He is now a little human filled with his own moods, thoughts, personality and behavior. Parents can do their best, but some point the child will start to regulate his own emotions. Some of the choices I made in self-regulation were dangerous and there wasn’t much my parents could do to change that.
Put on a happy face — from the ages of 11 to 13, I went through a lot of loss. I visited my oldest brother in the psychiatric ward. My grandparents died. One of my friends was killed. I was ushered from hospital to hospital. As the youngest in my family I didn’t have much to offer, but I noticed I could make people laugh. From a young age I developed my own process of making people laugh instead of talking about my feelings.
Hiding emotions — on top of making people laugh I also hid my feelings. When I experienced depression, I hid my feelings so much that no one really knew anything was wrong with me until I attempted suicide.
Self-hatred — with all of the loss that happened at a young age I internalized the feelings and started hating myself. My parents loved me and did everything they could for me. They didn’t encourage a single moment of self-hatred, but were faced with a kid who oozed it. Learning to like myself was a process I had to take on my own.
Sensitivity — Kay Redfield-Jamison says one of the most common traits of people with bipolar disorder is sensitivity. I was a horribly sensitive child and have to continue to work on my sensitivity. My parents did not make me sensitive or lessen the hardships I faced. It’s always been a part of me. My sensitivity was by nature.
No matter where the bipolar symptoms come from — nature or nurture — the most important thing to do is to work on them. Everyone’s path to treatment is different. There’s no quick fix. Changing behaviors that might be from our biology, environment or our own experience is hard.
Let me know if nature, nurture or what you went through influenced your mental health disorder the most in the comments section.
Ross Szabo is the CEO of Human Power Project, a company that creates mental health curriculum for people of all ages. He’s an award-winning speaker, co-author of Behind Happy Faces; Taking Charge of Your Mental Health and social pioneer. Ross has spoken to over 1 million people about his experiences with bipolar disorder and reached millions more in media appearances. He received the 2010 Didi Hirsch Removing the Stigma Leadership Award, 2012 Changing Minds Award and had his advocacy work entered into the Record of Congress. Find Ross Szabo on Twitter.