Has anyone ever thought about how it is possible to be in love, but still suffer from a mental illness? Has anyone ever thought about how it doesn't make any sense whatsoever? Well, tonight as I'm scrolling through Pinterest and checking out the fun psychology infographics (because that's what psych majors do in their spare time, right?) I was intrigued by one diagram that I had pinned one whole year ago. I presume that I never gave it much thought, or that perhaps I wasn't in a stable place to be truly thinking about it before.
Let's start with a bit of background. This time last year, I myself was struggling with the biggest pit of anxiety and depression that I've ever faced. I was attending a school I hated, struggling everyday with anxious thoughts. All I wanted to do was lie in bed, in the dark, and cry about nothing and everything. I skipped classes, I called out of work, and I isolated myself from the world because I was fearful and sad. I was also in a relationship I wasn't happy in, and, at the time, all of my crazy mentally-ill thoughts seemed to be elevated because of him. (Disclaimer: I can say now that it really wasn't his fault.)
Today, I am still fearful and sad, but not nearly as severe as I was one year ago. I still face days where I have no desire to smile, laugh, or socialize. I still have panic attacks that cripple my normal functioning. I go to the same school, work the same exhausting retail job, and face the same family drama that I did before. Granted, I have sought help through therapy and drugs (for a short time), but I freed myself from a relationship that I believe was augmenting my issues and knew that I needed to work on them alone.
Okay, so back to the graphic. Below is a picture of cute little vials that contain different amounts of colored "liquid" that is meant to represent different neurotransmitters. So I want you to take a look at 4 of the emotions and their corresponding neurotransmitter levels:
Anxiety - low Dopamine
Happiness- high Serotonin
Depression- low Dopamine and Serotonin
Love- high Serotonin, Dopamine, and Oxytocin
At first glace, this all makes perfect sense. Dopamine helps regulate the brain's pleasure center and emotional responses and plays a role in the person's perception of reality. Serotonin regulates mood and helps determine basic feelings (such as happy, sad, hungry, comfortable). So when both of these levels are low, a state of depression is reached because the individual is not feeling pleasure, has a distorted view of reality, and is told, by the brain, to be sad (even if they don't know why).
Bear with me here as I try to explain this epiphany I've just had. So we know that, in depression, neurotransmitters levels are low. And we can see that, in love, Dopamine and Serotonin levels are supposedly high. But that can't be if a person is both depressed and in love. However, a new chemical is introduced to the equation when we starting discussing this feeling of love. Oxytocin is an important neurotransmitter in intimacy and is considered the "bonding hormone", "trust hormone", and "love hormone", Oxytocin levels rise when two people hug, kiss, or engage in sex, during childbirth, and when a mother breast feeds. Therefore, we can all thank Oxytocin for the feelings of love and attachment we feel with those we are close to.
Here is my question: How can someone be clinically depressed and be in love at the same time?
My theory goes like this ... When one is in love, or is experiencing an romantic relationship, but suffers from depression, then there is more significance and weight placed on Oxytocin than on the other two chemicals. In turn, the relationship relies more on the attachment between the two people, than it does on the feelings of pleasure, reward, or happiness. When one person is depressed in a relationship, they still feel content because they feel the full effects of the "love hormone" which then, of course, translates to the idea of being in love. With the result of depression's lowered levels of Dopamine and Serotonin, then it would make sense that Oxytocin would have to pick up the slack. And wouldn't this mean that the person is more likely to remain in this relationship because they simply feel attached to them? And that the usual effects of Dopamine and Serotonin play less of a role?
So to tie this all back around to my personal experience. While I was in this relationship, my brain had low levels of D and S, but the reason why it didn't work out is because my Oxytocin couldn't pick up the slack. Reason being that I am not a physical touchy feely person whatsoever. I like to keep hugging, kissing, handholding, etc. to a minimum. In turn, Oxytocin was not being activated as often and my level of attachment with my significant other was weak. Therefore, all three chemicals that influence the feeling of liking someone were low, and the relationship ultimately was one-sided and failed. (Side note: Another reason that I support myself not dating again until I get my mental state under control is because clearly my Dopamine and Serotonin will need to be normal so that they can pick up the slack from Oxytocin..)
In regards to other relationships that I know and witness, my theory remains supported. A depressed individual can be comforted by the fact that someone who cares for them is there and is going to encourage them no matter what they go through --- they are bonded. Physical touch aids in attachment so when the depressed person is at a low point and their significant other puts an arm around them or holds them tight, those Oxytocin levels are spiking again --- love.
All in all, these are my late night thoughts that sparked from an analysis of a Pinterest post. I am highly aware that flaws may exist due to the fact that this "theory" has not been empirically tested and no research or data supports what was said above. I'm just a psych undergrad trying to make sense of the world around me and sharing my ideas with others. Take it as you will.
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