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Treating Bipolar Disorder with Cognitive Therapy

written by: Dr. Jerry Kennard • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 6/5/2012

Cognitive therapy is a proven and effective form of treatment that is both helpful for the patient and easy to understand.

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    What is Cognitive Therapy?

    Cognitive therapy is a form of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is really an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of techniques and strategies designed to enable and enhance wellbeing. The evidence to date shows that psychological intervention, in conjunction with medication, provides a useful therapeutic strategy.

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    How Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder Can Help

    Bipolar disorder is a complex and difficult illness. Therapy sessions can help with the general understanding of the disorder and with the identification and management of triggers. Coping with bipolar is a lifelong issue and a therapist can help with the development of relapse plans, come up with ways to reduce stress and help the person get back on their feet following a bipolar episode. These strategies provide the basic framework for giving the person a sense of control over their condition. Of course a therapist may also be helpful for very specific concerns that arise as a result of living with bipolar.

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    Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder

    Cognitive therapy (CT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are based on the relationship between thoughts, behaviors and emotions. Certain patterns of thoughts or beliefs are thought to reinforce mood states. The aim of the cognitive therapist is to identify such thoughts and beliefs and, in collaboration with the patient, find ways of changing them.

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    What Happens During Therapy?

    Cognitive therapy involves a focus on learning and the application of skills and strategies designed to help the person cope with bipolar and all that entails. Specific topics may vary somewhat depending on individual needs, but the focus is always on problem solving and practicing the skills necessary for this. Homework is a feature of the approach, in which the patient is asked to complete certain tasks. The number of sessions in a ‘package’ of treatment can vary according to need, but can be as few as six sessions, perhaps with top-up sessions later.

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    Is Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Effective?

    It is important to appreciate that no form of psychotherapy is a cure for bipolar disorder. As a support structure however there is evidence that cognitive therapy for bipolar disorder can help to reduce relapses. CBT has a well-documented and well researched track record for a range of conditions associated with bipolar disorder. These include depression, anxiety disorder, panic, alcohol problems, eating disorders, sleep disorders and drug dependence.

    Because the patient is an active participant in the therapeutic process, they feel empowered and are able to develop a mastery over their condition rather than be ruled by it. Many people like this form of therapy because attention is paid to the here-and-now and practical solutions to problems rather than delving into the past. The active task-oriented sessions provide targets and give a sense of accomplishment when these are met.

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    Is CBT Difficult?

    Far from it. The theory is easy to understand and the tasks are straight forward. CBT is not a form of brain-washing and it is not a cold-mechanical process as sometimes portrayed. Moreover, there are no side effects and nothing that can cause harm.

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    References

    Berk, L., Berl, M., Castle, D., Lauder, S (2009) Living With Bipolar. Vermilion Press.

    Perry, A., Tarrier, N., Morriss, R., McCarthy, E & Limb, K (1999) Randomised control trial of efficacy of teaching patients with bipolar disorder to identify early symptoms of relapse and obtain treatment. BMJ, 318, 149-53.