- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

The language of Valentine’s Day cards and love songs — “crazy for you,” “madly in love,” et cetera — may reveal an important truth. Sometimes, love looks like a mental disorder, says British clinical psychologist Frank Tallis.

“Love seems to have the power to destabilize people emotionally,” says Mr. Tallis, who has lectured in psychology and neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London. “Particularly in vulnerable individuals, it can be very difficult to cope.”

The author of “Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness,” Mr. Tallis has a private practice in London, where he says he often has patients who are suffering mentally because of love.

“Some people are referred to me because of an admission to depression or anxiety disorder, but in fact, once we’d explored issues around their problems, it was clear they were just in love.”

When people are with their beloved, Mr. Tallis says, they often experience a manic state, characterized by expansive moods, causing generous gift giving and inflated self-esteem. When they are away from the person they love, there can be tearfulness, insomnia and low mood — mirroring the symptoms of depression.

The idea of love as a form of mental illness “is not as absurd as it sounds,” author John Preston said, reviewing Mr. Tallis’ book for the London Daily Telegraph. “Love … shares a lot of symptoms with various forms of psychopathology, notably obsession, depression, mania and manic depression.”

“When we fall in love we are not ourselves; our emotional center of gravity is displaced and we topple headlong into the hands of fate,” Mr. Preston says. “Anything can happen. Yet ‘falling in love’ is a relatively recent phenomenon; it wasn’t until the 16th century that the phrase passed into common currency.”

But while such feelings are common for people in love, Mr. Tallis says, when taken to another level, the obsession caused by love could almost become like stalking.

“If we look at stalkers, all that happens, at least a percentage of them, is that they fall in love with someone and just want to be with them,” Mr. Tallis says. “They make a nuisance of themselves, and the other party is not interested in them, but if the other party said ‘yes’ to their advances and their overtures, then we would regard stalkers as being ordinary individuals.”

Morbid jealously is another symptom of lovesickness, Mr. Tallis says.

“In reality, people tend to be quite jealous,” Mr. Tallis says. “Love, when it is authentic, always casts a bit of a shadow. There is always a darker side of possession and jealousy, even in the most kind of normal and innocent love.”

Lovesickness can even be lethal, as when rejection and unrequited love increase the risk of suicide, Mr. Tallis says. Ancient doctors used to believe that love itself might kill you, he says.

“It’s only in the 20th century that doctors and psychiatrists stopped taking love seriously,” Mr. Tallis says. “Some psychotherapeutic principles have existed since the 10th century. If you look at the writings of early Islamic doctors, such as Ibn Sina, [author of the ‘Canons of Medicine’] who was really regarded as one of the originators of contemporary medicine, he said the obsession is based on idealization.”

Love causes us to enhance and elevate our beloved, Mr. Tallis says. Separating truth from reality is therefore key to treating lovesickness.

“Nobody is really perfect,” Mr. Tallis says. “This idea of challenging the obsession and challenging distortions in the mind corresponds to contemporary forms of psychotherapy, like cognitive behavior therapy.”

Medication also might be helpful, Mr. Tallis says. Studies suggest that when people fall in love and begin to obsess, it causes a drop in the level of serotonin, a brain chemical. In fact, the levels drop to the same amount as someone suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, he says.

“When they begin to fall out of love, serotonin levels begin to rise,” Mr. Tallis says. “It’s possible the administration of certain forms of anti-obsessional drugs, like Prozac, could ameliorate some of the obsessional symptoms of love.”

Not everyone in love is in need of psychiatric care, Mr. Tallis cautions.

“I’m not saying love is abnormal,” he says. “It’s part of the human condition, but it’s certainly a potentially destabilizing experience, more than we recognize socially. Perhaps in modern times, we’ve underestimated its significance, in terms of its power to destabilize people emotionally.”

If people start acting irrational due to falling in love, they were probably previously mentally ill, says Lourdes G. Griffin, administrator for the outpatient behavioral health service at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest.

“Sometimes kids commit suicide because someone broke up with them, or they do something aggressive to the one who stole the boyfriend or girlfriend away,” says Ms. Griffin, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology. “They may be unstable to start with, and then they cope with loss in an unhealthy way.”

Mental illness is not an accurate description of most people in love, Ms. Griffin says. People in love may become more adventurous, but they usually don’t become psychotic, she says.

“The loved one may be preoccupying a person’s thoughts, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the person is sick,” Ms. Griffin says. “It’s natural to think about certain things at certain times more than others. I don’t know who would want to fall in love if it was an illness.”

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