Van Gogh Defense Project: Rationale

A colleague I’ll call John has decided to start tracking his mood for a long period of time (years). He explains why:

A few years ago, after a severe manic attack, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The attack was preceded by an intense period of stress, then two weeks of elevated mood, increased social activity (hanging out and meeting people), and racing thoughts (hypomania). Then I skipped a few nights of sleep, wandered down roads in the middle of the night, and eventually became psychotic, in that I could no longer distinguish between reality and imagination. I was chased by cops on several occasions, and was involuntarily committed to the mental health wing of a hospital for a month. It put a massive dent in my life.

Family, medicine, and time helped me recover. Being out of control like that was fun only for the first two weeks. Having my life turned upside down was not fun either. As I recovered I became increasingly interested in finding ways to prevent a relapse. One doctor said: You have a vulnerability. You need to protect yourself. I agreed.

Looking back on the experience, I realized there was a rise in odd behaviors two weeks before I started to skip nights of sleep and fell into psychosis. There was an even longer buildup of stress, anxiety, and fear in the months before the mania hit. During the last two weeks before the mania, my behavior was different from what is normal for me. I felt elated and had a sense of general “breakthrough”. I suddenly felt no fear and anxiety. I felt on top of the world. I was constantly taking notes because ideas and thoughts were running through my head. I scheduled meetings and social activities almost constantly throughout these two weeks and shared my experiences as my new self. As I started to sleep less and skip nights of sleep, others later told me I seemed agitated and down.

Maybe it is possible to catch these early warning signs and take counter measures before they worsen into mania or depression. This is why I have started to track my behavior starting with mood and sleep. If I can get a baseline of my behavior and know what is ‘normal’ for me, it will be easier to notice when I am outside my normal range. I can alert myself or be alerted by others around me who are monitoring me. Long-term records of mood will also help me experiment to see which things influence my mood. This may give me more control over my mood.

Mood tracking might be a good idea for anyone to do, but it may be especially helpful for people with a bipolar diagnosis. Everyone has mood variation. For bipolars, however, mood swings can be more extreme (in both directions, up and down) , have far worse consequences (psychosis on one end and suicide on the other), change more rapidly, and be more vulnerable to environmental triggers like stress. The good news is that the first changes in mood can happen hours or days before more extreme changes. This gives people a chance to take countermeasures to prevent more extreme states.

The project name refers to the fact that Van Gogh had bipolar disorder.

2 Responses to “Van Gogh Defense Project: Rationale”

  1. Tim Beneke Says:

    I want to thank Seth’s colleague “John” for articulating and sharing this. I am not bipolar, but I do have relatively mild manic tendencies, and I am very vulnerable to serious depression and work hard to find ways to avoid/avert it, with reasonable success the last decade or so. I periodically rediscover how important good circadian rhythms are in protecting me from depression — getting up and getting sunlight early in the morning makes a big difference. (A realization I owe to Seth.)

    Reading “John’s” account is helpful. It’s a real challenge to maintain some objectivity about one’s moods and the factors that may be influencing them; it requires real work — and work that one should not try to do entirely alone. The help and feedback of loved ones, colleagues, etc. is important. And gaining valid causal knowledge of what is influencing your mood is crucial — I find it regrettable that the therapeutic establishment that I sought help from for many years had little valid knowledge. They mostly wanted me to revisit the “repressed” emotions of my childhood — that road led only to more suffering and was mostly a waste of time. My impression is that many people of my baby boomer generation are learning to become managers of their moods, weight, sleep, energy, relationships, etc….

    Thanks again, “John”.

  2. Minhaj Says:

    Thanks! That is a very clear description of what you went through. I love the name Van Gogh Defense Project. As you you have experienced with intensity what some of us go have only felt at a mild level, I think this is inspiring. After reading this I want to track my mood because this is very relevant and its about self awareness. I think getting to know ourselves better is the dream and goal of a philosopher/Writer and having years of data can really help improve my life.