Linking LGATs and Bipolar Disorder through DOPAMINE
Date: July 13, 2011 12:19AM
How LGATs trigger bipolar symptoms – What we now know about the body’s response to stress and sleep deprivation:
After doing an LGAT in 2010 I noticed very clear links between the structure of the course and the events that had led to my two significant manic episodes. Both the triggers of my two manias (excessive stress and sleep deprivation sustained for a period before suddenly removing the stressor) and the symptoms of my mania (how I felt and my observed behavior) could be seen in the way the LGAT took place and in the observed behavior of almost every person who took part in an LGAT. To be fair the behavior and “testimonies” of LGAT graduates read, for the most part, like the symptoms of a hypomanic state. Any person unfamiliar with this state could be excused for confusing it with “enlightenment” or “breakthrough” and the feelings of euphoria, self-worth, confidence and sociability have seduced many of history’s greatest minds. People who are hypomanic just feel like the best possible version of themselves – they feel alive, exhilarated, powerful and often more joyful than they’d ever believed possible. What I’d like to try to explain is the spectrum nature of bipolar disorder – that every person, whether classified as bipolar or not, has their own stress tolerance – and that neuroscience can now provide a highly probable explanation for the feelings of bliss, exhilaration and – occasionally – impulsivity that appear at the end of a training… and then disappear quite soon afterwards.
Because I'd like people who are unfamiliar with Bipolar Disorder to understand this post I'm going to explain this as simply as I can and go through the basics first:
Bipolar Disorder (formerly known as 'Manic Depression') is a mood disorder that affects about 2% of the population. It is characterised by extremes of mood that, by definition, 98% of people have not experienced before (other than – possibly - through the use of certain recreational drugs). This means that – by definition – if a “normal” person is pushed into a hypomanic state it will feel like nothing he’s ever felt before. While most people experience their greatest happiness at a level of e.g. +10 and their greatest sadness at -10, using the same scale people who are bipolar, when manic, experience an indescribable sense of euphoria and exhilaration that could be considered maybe +20 happiness. On the down side there is clinical depression where bipolar people feel sadness of maybe -20.
This is greatly simplified - in fact there are a number of types of bipolar disorder with various levels of 'happiness' and 'sadness'. It is important to understand the ‘spectrum’ nature of the illness in that you don’t get a blood test for it, but are diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist based upon observed symptoms. Being bipolar really just means that you are particularly vulnerable to triggers such as psychological stress, traumatic life events (break-up / divorce) or sleep deprivation. It just so happens that the criteria which one must meet to be called bipolar results in a grouping of 2% of the population – if the symptoms had to be relaxed slightly this percentage could be 10% and if relaxed further it could move to 50% and so on. Every person alive is vulnerable to sleep deprivation and psychological stress to some degree and a number of factors, both social and physiological contribute to stress tolerance and stress response. To name just two physiological factors, mood disorders have been linked to an exaggerated stress response via the HPA axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal) and a 2000 study at The University of Michigan demonstrated that people who are Bipolar 1 have, on average, 31% more monoamine producing cells in certain parts of their brains (monoamines include the neurotransmitters DOPAMINE, serotonin and norepinephrine).
Bipolar 1 (which is what I am) experiences the highest highs (full mania) (+15 to +20) and the lowest lows (-15 to -20), Bipolar 2 experiences something called hypomania which is a milder form of mania (+11 to +15) and then the lowest lows (-15 to -20) and Cyclothymia is when someone has hypomania and mild depression. Within each of those forms you get people whose high periods last a few months, others whose last just a few days or weeks and some just a few hours. The last 'group' are known to be 'rapid cycling'. Some people have mixed episodes where they have symptoms of mania and depression at the same time. The point I'm making here is that there are as many forms of bipolar disorder as there are people who've been diagnosed with it and among those who haven't been diagnosed there are people who very close to that classification and people very far from it. Just like there is a normal distribution of 'height' among people there is also a normal distribution of 'mood stability', so while most men (I'm guessing a bit here) - maybe 80% of adults - fall between the height of 5"5 and 6"4 there will be a couple who are much taller and a couple who are much shorter. Likewise with mood you get 2% who are bipolar and 2% on the other end who are unbelievably "stable" (but probably seem like robots as nothing seems to affect them). The Bipolar 1 people are like the Shaquille O'Neals of the mood world and the Bipolar 2 people are more like Michael Jordan height-wise. 80% of people are "average height" and likewise 80% of people probably respond to extreme stress in a manageable way.
The reason that I very probably over-explain this is that the vast majority of people who do LGATs seemed to be pushed into a hypomanic state, while some appear to go manic (delusions and psychosis) and some are pushed into mild or severe depression. Let’s look at the symptoms of hypomania to see if you recognize any of them from either your own behavior or from someone else returning from an LGAT:
Hypomania Symptoms (one or more of the following):
• Euphoria (feelings of absolute bliss and exhilaration)
• Impulsive behaviour (spending sprees, sexual indiscretions / affairs, divorce, changing jobs, gambling sprees, risky business investments, reckless driving)
• Sense of enormous self-importance, self-confidence, life purpose
• Frequently increased religiosity / cosmic pre-occupation
• Mood inconsistent with situation / environment
• Increased energy / decreased need for sleep
• Increased motivation / goal directed behaviour
• Increased sociability (feeling comfortable in any social setting)
• Pressure to speak (very fast talking as if ideas are coming too quickly to verbalise)
• Increased creativity (many great artists, musicians were bipolar - Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain...)
The symptoms of mania are much the same, but much stronger. (By definition someone hypomanic can still function while someone manic needs to be medicated / hospitalized until he/she slows down.)
• Delusions of grandeur and psychosis are seen at the upper end of mania
• Suicide and clinical depression are seen at the low end of the mood spectrum
You would think that I made up those symptoms just to fit them in with LGAT symptoms, but check them out on any bipolar website - most will have the bulk of them and, with a basic grasp of how the brain works, you can understand why people behave like this.
I can attest to the fact that when I was manic I felt invincible - an enormous sense of wellbeing, of peace, of clarity (initially) and energy. I didn't sleep for over a week and managed on just an hour or two a night for the next six weeks. I quit my job, I gave all of my money away and I felt as though I'd been injected with something that said "YOU ARE AWESOME - YOU CAN DEAL WITH ANYTHING!!!!!" I felt absolutely no shame in telling people EXACTLY what I felt for them and, since I just felt love, the effects were generally positive. I felt as though I could do things that were (realistically) impossible. At the end of about two months whatever was causing the high ran out (NOTHING changed externally and my attitude or mindset hadn't changed). In 24 hours I went from on top of the world to feeling utterly useless and of no value. I felt as though I could not even do things that (realistically) were very simple. It's difficult to explain this but I felt as though I couldn't get up and cancel a cell phone contract for example. Things that were very basic seemed impossible and it felt as though nothing could work out right. That thing that was causing my high had dropped below even normal levels and had disappeared entirely. That thing is called DOPAMINE.
Bipolar Disorder is often explained using "The Dopamine Hypothesis for Bipolar Disorder" which basically says that high levels of dopamine in the brain cause mania and low levels cause depression. Dopamine, like Seratonin and Norepinephrine, are Monoamines, a group of neurotransmitters that allow cells in the brain to communicate with each other and they need to be in balance for your mood to be where it should be. These neurotransmitters are always present, helping you cope with day to day things, but when you are put in an extreme situation your body behaves in an extreme way.
To give you an idea of how these neurotransmitters impact mood, consider that most antidepressants function by increasing the amount of one (or more) of these monoamines in the synaptic cleft (which is the gap between the two brain cells communicating). An SSRI is a "Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitor" and a "SNRI is a Seratonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitor". Quite recently drugs such as Wellbutrin have come out - these are thought to be Dopamine agonists (they increase dopamine levels). The point I'm trying to make is that there is clearly a chemical aspect to mood and to feelings of bliss, energy, confidence and sense of self-worth. Cocaine functions as a dopamine reuptake inhibitor, Amphetamines are also dopamine agonists and HDMA (or 'Ecstasy') flushes out the Seratonin reuptake transporters, causing the synaptic cleft to be flooded with Seratonin... hence the high.
Although seratonin and norepinephrine are certainly involved let's just focus on DOPAMINE for now. Dopamine is a precursor (or cousin) to Noradrenaline (also called "Norepinephrine") and Noradrenaline is a precursor to the more well-known ADRENALINE. Dopamine is just a neurotransmitter, Noradrenaline is a hormone AND a neurotransmitter and adrenaline is just a hormone - secreted by the Adrenal Gland. Most people are aware of the function of adrenaline - a physical threat appears, the Sympathetic Nervous System ("Fight or Flight" response) kicks in and adrenaline is released. As a result blood is diverted to your muscles, to your eyes and away from your skin, reproductive organs, immune system etc. This is an evolutionary response that allows us to deal with physically stressful situations.
What is not as well-known and, until quite recently, was not understood is the way that the body responds to a psychological threat. Top international neuroscientist, Dr. Gene Wallenstein, in his 2003 book "Mind, Stress and Emotions - The New Science of Mood" explains quite nicely what we now know about the response of the body to a PSYCHOLOGICAL THREAT (Of course in 1971 or earlier when LGATs stumbled upon their methods they had no clue of what was going on in participants' brains from a neuroscience perspective). Wallenstein explains that people process psychological stress using the HPA axis - the HYPOTHALAMUS in the brainstem interprets the stressor, it creates a substance called CRF which it sends to the PITUITARY Gland, the Pituitary Gland creates a substance called ACTH which it sends to the ADRENAL Gland and the Adrenal Gland starts pumping out cortisol. What they've now worked out is that cortisol impacts the monoamines (DOPAMINE, Seratonin, Noradrenaline) affecting their levels, so it was hypothesised that stress could increase DOPAMINE levels. The thinking behind this was that dopamine provides a person with all the tools to cope in a stressful situation, so from an evolutionary perspective it made sense. Dopamine gives a person confidence and allows them to feel like they can cope with anything, so if a person is overwhelmed then a small increase in dopamine can bring him back into balance (homeostasis = the state of equilibrium towards which the body continually strives.)
Going back to the link I saw between my LGAT (a derivative of est, Lifespring, Silva Mind Control and Actualisations) I noticed the following:
In 2003 - when I first went manic - it was following an EXTREMELY STRESSFUL period in my life where (correctly or incorrectly) my value and sense of self-worth were very much tied up in finding a high-paying job in my field. Because of the state of the market at the time (London 2002 / 2003) I couldn't get that job and I felt an enormous sense of inadequacy and guilt and failure as a person. (This was my first attempt to find a job after leaving university). This stress translated into poor sleeping patterns and, because I had to get up very early to get to work I slept less and less and became progressively more stressed. After eight months of enormous stress I was offered an unbelievable job out of the blue, when I least expected it. It felt as though all of my feelings of inadequacy and guilt were very abruptly removed and replaced with something hugely affirming - something which said "You made it! You're a success!" The next two days I was hypomanic and on the third day, after getting a few good nights' rest I went completely manic.
So, I've now spent a considerable amount of time comparing the LGAT that I went on to those described by other people - Landmark, est, PSI, Quest etc. and I've read everything that I can on these things from Cults in Our Midst to Combatting Cult Mind Control to thousands of pro and anti posts by people who've taken part in these trainings all over the world. While not identical, most LGATs follow the following basic process:
1. Spend the first 80% of the training convincing participants that they are worthless "assholes"
2. Put the participants through numerous exercises and create an environment where participants feel inadequate, highly stressed and guilty
3. Pepper the stress with relaxation techniques before inducing stress again
4. Push this to a climax (breaking point / "breakthrough")
5. Deprive participants of sleep and create mental exhaustion by giving few breaks, having very long hours and giving home work on top of this
6. Spend the last 20% of the training telling participants that they have "graduated" and that they are now wonderful. Lots of hugging, dancing, affirmation.
Having spent eight years studying up on (and living with) bipolar disorder I've come to understand both the academic and practical nature of things which trigger a manic episode and, sitting in that LGAT one year ago today (we finished on the Sunday night of the World Cup Final) I thought "I COULD NOT THINK OF A BETTER RECIPE FOR A MANIC EPISODE THAN WHAT I'VE SEEN TAKING PLACE IN THIS TRAINING." After looking into the behaviour of the vast majority of participants from these trainings on discussion forums and by looking at the promises made my LGATs on their sites, it was clear that the vast majority of people with "normal" mood regulation experience hypomanic symptoms - euphoria, sense of life purpose, occasionally impulsivity, inflated sense of self-worth etc. Those prone to mania may experience delusions of grandeur or psychosis and those who cannot cope with the stress may experience depression and, possibly, suicide.
Stress and sleep deprivation are two of the triggers for mania/hypomania that you'll find in any credible work on causes for bipolar disorder. These were two significant features of the training that I did and my disgust with the general manipulation taking place in these LGATs pushed me to research this further.
Since the writing of Mind, Stress and Emotions there have been three very interesting studies published in The Journal of Neuroscience (The Journal of Neuroscience is the weekly journal of The Society for Neuroscience, an organisation established in 1969, made up of over 40,000 physicians and scientists worldwide... so it is the most credible source of information on the brain and central nervous system around.) March 17 2004 an article was published based on a study performed at The McConnell Brain Imaging Center, Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Montreal Canada. Using PET scans the study concluded "THESE DATA SUGGEST THAT AVERSIVE STRESSFUL EVENTS CAN BE ASSOCIATED WITH MESOLIMBIC DOPAMINE RELEASE IN HUMANS." So, according to this study stress leads to dopamine release. It gets more interesting. On August 21 2008 an article was published based on a study performed by The National Institute on Drug Abuse - "JUST ONE NIGHT WITHOUT SLEEP CAN INCREASE THE AMOUNT OF THE CHEMICAL DOPAMINE IN THE HUMAN BRAIN." In Science Daily (25 March 2011), referring to the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, a study performed at the University of California Berkeley (with assistance from an associate professor at Harvard), an article entitled "PULLING AN ALL-NIGHTER CAN BRING ON EUPHORIA AND RISKY BEHAVIOR". The reason, again, was through increased DOPAMINE (also measured using PET scans).
What these trainings are doing is simply creating stress and a sense of no self-worth while depriving people of sleep. By applying and removing stress the courses condition DOPAMINE production to remain at higher and higher levels (much like adrenaline kicks in quickly, but takes a while to calm down.) As the training ends the stressor is removed and replaced with affirmation - participants are now producing dopamine but are not using it and their synaptic clefts are flooded with dopamine, in much the same way as taking cocaine causes flooding of the synaptic cleft. Conveniently the follow up workshop is two days later - at this stage not only will most peoples' dopamine production still be up, but they will have had the chance to sleep and so the dopamine produced for staying awake will also flood the synaptic cleft. Excessive spending and generosity (who remembers either offering (or being offered) to pay for someone else's course - someone you'd met four days earlier?) are common symptoms of hypomania so for LGATs it's nice to get a group of people together - who are feeling a euphoria that they don't understand - and ask them to buy something. This is why you have to buy the next course NOW - the longer the delay, the greater the chance that the high (and impulsivity) will have worn off.
TO BE VERY CLEAR STRESS AND SLEEP DEPRIVATION BOOST DOPAMINE LEVELS BEYOND NORMAL AND, ACCORDING TO THE DOPAMINE HYPOTHESIS FOR BIPOLAR DISORDER, BEYOND NORMAL DOPAMINE LEVELS ARE WHAT CAUSE MANIC AND HYPO-MANIC SYMPTOMS. THE BEHAVIOUR, AND DESCRIBED FEELINGS, OF LGAT PARTICIPANTS READ EXACTLY LIKE HYPOMANIC / MANIC SYMPTOMS.
This is not rocket science – it is easy enough for any person to understand.
Speak to any psychologist or psychiatrist about their manic patients and ask them how difficult it is to convince them that they need to go back on medication and that their sense of well-being is just chemical. That state of euphoria is unbelievably seductive and it's conquered far more intelligent and introspective minds than my own. The first time it happened to me I had no idea what was going on and, even with all that I've read and all of the precautions I've taken, I know that I can still be tricked by it. What chance then does the average man on the street have when he's pushed into this hypomanic state, he feels better than he's ever felt in his life and he has some non-professional clown (who's established himself as the source of all knowledge in the room) telling him that this feeling is a result of their "technology"?
Their "technology" is stress, sleep deprivation, sudden removal of stress. It's that simple.