Bipolar psychotherapy is not Freud, not couches, not talk/talk/talk. There are specific skills to learn. Learning them may help you as much as pills. Sorreee, so far no one’s shown that you can do without pills entirely using these skills. However, you may be able to get by with fewer medications or lower doses (talking with you provider of course).
Until the early 2000’s, treatment for bipolarity was all about pills. Then five therapies were shown to improve outcomes compared to pills alone. You’ll find details below on these old therapies below. The common ingredients are important parts of bipolar treatment. Unfortunately, many parts of bipolar psychotherapy are hard to do on your own.
Common ingredients in bipolar psychotherapy
- Education: learn a lot about what you’re managing. It’s just like diabetes: the more you know, the better a job you can do. I hope my website helps with this important first step.
- Manage your sleep. Sorry, your body is not the same as your friend’s who can stay up all night no problem. You need a regular pattern of sleep: a regular bedtime, regular rise time. Skip this step and you’ll be asking medications to work uphill.
- Watch out for drugs. No THC marijuana. Maybe high-CBD marijuana, but y0u’ll have to be careful about type and grade. Alcohol okay in small amounts that doesn’t mess with your sleep (if in doubt, take it out until you’re sure).
- Monitor mood and energy. If you can spot changes early you can turn them around before they turn into big and/or long episodes. How? Tighten up your sleep control (lot’s to learn there) and learn a whole bag-of-tricks for slowing yourself down when accelerating; or keeping going when getting depressed. Until you’re good at this, some external monitors may help you (friends, mood charting, your therapist).
- Turn down the noise. Relationship stresses, job stresses, old conversations in your head, repeatedly tripping over your own feet when trying to move your life forward: all these will get in the way of good mood stability. A half-decent basic therapist can help you with all the common life stresses.
Some of these you can do on your own, but some can be hard without a good guide. Unfortunately, finding someone who knows bipolar psychotherapy can be difficult: there aren’t many such therapists.
However, most good therapists actually know most of these tools, even if they don’t recognize themselves as doing bipolar psychotherapy. If you find someone whom you trust, she/he may be able to help you through many of the recommended steps. You might have to point the way based on your reading.
One of the newest therapies focuses almost entirely on controlling sleep, and it got really good results in its first research trial. So, your first steps to adding a bipolar-specific psychotherapy are:
A. Keep learning. There’s a ton of stuff on this site; and, the most recent book version with Dr. Aiken is better organized.
B. Start tuning up your sleep: regular bedtime, regular rise-time. I know that can be extremely difficult. A therapist can help you (see next item!).
A workbook for Bipolar 2
Because this website is mostly about Bipolar II and other non-manic versions of bipolar disorder, I’ll link here one workbook that’s specific for these versions and has many of these common ingredients of therapy. As with any workbook, you’ll only get as much out of it as you put into it. Most people do best with these things if they use them with a therapist (which works even if the therapist is not well-versed in these techniques; just go through the workbook together. The key is to do the exercises in the book, not just read the book). Okay, have a look at The Bipolar II Workbook. But return to my website here for continued updated bipolar education (free; and I have no $ connection to this workbook either).
Update 3/2019: The rest of this page is old material, circa 2010, on the original five bipolar psychotherapy studies. I’m leaving all this here for therapists, if they need to see what they’ve missed.
Five specific bipolar psychotherapies
In April 2007 a major research program published their results testing three out of these five versus a 3-session education program. When any of these three were added to mood stabilizer treatment for patients with bipolar disorder experiencing significant depression, patients recovered more quickly and more were likely to stay well.Miklowitz
The three psychotherapies, all of which are described below, were:
- Bipolar-specific Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Interpersonal Therapy with Social Rhythm Therapy
- Family-Focused Therapy (for patients with family who could join in treatment)
There two more kinds of therapy which have been studied in bipolar disorder. All of the five therapies share many ingredients in common, summarized below. This is a long essay. You might want to skip right to the summary. Or you may skip to a particular technique from the links for the five programs to be discussed:
|Therapy||Reporting Authors||Usual # sessions||BP I / BP II|
|Prodrome Detection||Perry and colleagues||9||not specified|
|Psychoeducation||Colom, Vieta, and colleagues||21||BPI and BP II|
|Cognitive Therapy||(Basco, Rush) Lam and colleagues||14||BP I|
|Interpersonal / Social Rhythm||Frank and colleagues||—||not specified|
|Family-Focused Therapy||Miklowitz and colleagues||21||BPI and BP II|
None of these bears much resemblance to traditional “psychoanalytic” psychotherapy (the modern version of Freudian technique), which has not been studied in bipolar disorder. They are specific approaches developed to address known needs of bipolar patients and families.
As you’ll see, all the therapies emphasize similar ingredients:
- Identifying signs of relapse and making plans for early detection and response;
- Using education to increase agreement between doctor, patient and family about what it being treated and why;
- Emphasis on the need to stay on medications even when well;
- Stress management, problem-solving, and focus on improving relationships; and
- Regular daily rhythms for sleep, exercise, eating, activities
We will look at each in turn, starting with the simplest.
In this study, a psychologist “with little previous clinical experience” met with patients up to 12 times (average 9) while the rest of the clinical team proceeded as usual. She discussed with the patient her/his personal experience of bipolar disorder and the signs preceding manic and depressive episodes in the past. They planned and rehearsed a plan for action should those symptoms appear again. The plan was written on a laminated card, carried by the patient. The therapist helped the patient keep a weekly diary, increasing to daily notes if symptoms were appearing. She informed the rest of the treatment team (a psychiatrist and mental health worker and primary care physician) of the plan. That was it, nothing any fancier than that, although it looks like she is a very smart person from the style of the write-up, of which she is the primary author.
Here are the striking results for prevention of manic episodes (prevention of depression was much less dramatic). The lines show the total number of patients having some sort of manic recurrence (so, as time goes on, the number grows and grows). If we watched long enough, and everyone had a relapse of some sort, the line would eventually flatten way up to the right at 1.0, meaning 100% of the patients had finally relapsed. As you can see, in the control group that didn’t get to meet with the psychologist, 50% of the group (the 0.5 line from left to right) had relapsed in some way in about a year).
By comparison, in the group who met with the psychologist, in one year only about 20% relapsed. We have to wonder if just anybody could get these results, besides Ms. Perry, but still, it’s pretty impressive. I’m planning on adding some of her tricks, like the card thing, to my approach, based on this result — for patients who have clearly identifiable “episodes” and pre-episode warning signs.
This research team (including Dr. Vieta, who provided much of the material for this entire essay) added 21 sessions of education about bipolar disorder, in groups of 8-12 patients each, to routine treatment in their clinic. A control group received 21 sessions of “nonstructured” meetings with the same two therapists, but in these groups, they tried not to teach about bipolar disorder (think about it: this was a very rigorous test of the theory that education itself is the active ingredient in the different outcomes shown below).
Look at the difference between these groups (this is the same kind of graph as shown above, except in reverse — it shows the total proportion of patients remaining well, so a curve that falls down more slowly means that more patients are staying well):
What did these education groups study? Here is their 21-week topic list:
- What is bipolar illness?
- Causal and triggering factors
- Symptoms (I): Mania and Hypomania
- Symptoms (II): Depression and mixed episodes
- Course and outcome
- Treatment (I): mood stabilizers
- Treatment (II): antimanic agents
- Treatment (III): antidepressants
- Serum levels: lithium, carbamazepine, valproate
- Pregnancy and genetic counseling
- Psychopharmacology vs alternative therapies
- Risks associated with treatment withdrawal
- Alcohol and street drugs: risks in bipolar illness
- Early detection of manic and hypomanic episodes
- Early detection of depressive and mixed episodes
- What to do when a new phase is detected?
- Regularity [presumably similar to “social rhythm therapy” emphasis; see below]
- Stress management techniques
- Problem-solving techniques
- Final session
Over the next 2 years the education group had about one third as many hospitalizations as the control group. As of December 2006, their treatment manual for this program is available in English thanks to diligent work on the translation by Dr. Colom. If you’re a therapist and ready to use it, you can buy it on Amazon.
This technique was introduced in 1996 by Drs. Basco and Rush (Ph.D. and M.D. respectively) in their book Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder. For psychologists seeking training in this method — or patients and families seeking the most thorough treatment possible and willing to teach their therapists while both patient and therapist learn by working through the a training manual — another more recent book describes the technique used by the authors of the largest research study of this method: Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder: A Therapist’s Guide to Concepts, Methods and Practice, by Dominic Lam and colleagues.
They too have shown a strikingly lower relapse rate in patients who had 14 sessions of this therapy added to their regular treatment. Note that this is not quite as rigorous a test as the PsychoEducation method above, since the control group here is getting no additional treatment, whereas Colom and colleagues conducted an identical group for the controls, without the education. Thus there is a chance that the improvement we’re seeing here is simply due to 14 sessions with skilled, caring therapists, and not necessarily due to the treatment described in their book. However, in any case, the results are still impressive:
Again the results are shown as a total number of patients remaining well, so the slower decrease in the treatment group (green) means more patients are staying well longer with the additional treatment.
Here are some of the main focus points in this therapy (from an excellent summary by Otto and colleagues):
|Medication adherence||Motivational interviewing
Engage patient as co-therapist
|e.g. Rollnick and Miller 1995e.g. behavioral steps: colored dots, pill-minderse.g self-monitoring, report forms|
|Early Detection / Intervention||Treatment contracts||(see list below )Two Person Feedback Rule”48-Hour Rule”|
|Stress||Stress / Lifestyle Management||Understand importance of sleep; protect sleep/wake cycleProblem-solving, communication skills, routine cognitive tools(Exercise)|
|Co-morbidity||CBT emphasis||Treating social phobia, panic disorder, substance use, eating|
|Depression||Standard CBT||Identifying dysfunctional beliefs, etc.|
The Harvard program makes extensive use of written plans, with a separate “treatment contract” for each of the following:
- Building a Support team
- Depressive Symptoms
- Personal Triggers of Depression
- Coping with Depression
- Personal Triggers of Mood Elevation
- Mood Elevation Symptoms
- Coping with Mood Elevation
There is even a free, online CBT for depression that is worth looking at if you can’t find a good, live CBT therapist, or can’t afford one. This is a great program but you’ll have to be very disciplined about working all the way through it to get the benefit. If you do, research shows you’ll likely get as much benefit as if you’d seen a live therapist (wow. true). Wagner
Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT)
The data supporting this method are not as strong for the other methods described in this essay. We will skip quickly on to another method which incorporates this approach. Professionals may recognize the following graph from the 1999 publication by Frank et al, which primarily shows that if you start with one method, be it IPSRT or regular clinical management with interpersonal therapy (ICM), you’re better off if you stick with it:
Family-Focused Therapy (FFT)
As far back as 1990, Dr. Miklowitz and his research team at the University of Colorado were at work adapting a Behavioral Family Management technique, previously studied in patients with schizophrenia and their families, to bipolar disorder.Miklowitz
How does Family-Focused Therapy work? As described in his book by that title (1997), FFT includes:
- the same kind of “psychoeducation” found in method #2 above;
- a “relapse drill” similar to method # 1 above; and
- ways to make the diagnosis easier to accept, a big part of the cognitive method #3 above.
However, this therapy also includes the family in a major way, which is not a feature of any of the above approaches. In addition to involving family members in all the steps just listed, it also focuses on communication within the family, teaches communication skills, and prepares the entire family for relapse episodes so that all members (not just the patient) have a plan for what to do when symptoms start to reappear.
In the research studies below, this method consisted of 21 therapy sessions over 9 months. Using this technique, his team reduced relapse rates in patients who’d been hospitalized for mania.Rea 2003 Another study using this method was published in 2000Miklowitz(c) with the following results:
As before, this shows the total number of patients staying well. Over a year, many relapse, but the treatment group (red line) does so more slowly. Unlike previous methods, this one shows the same pattern but for depressive relapse, which has been more difficult to address in most of the studies shown here (the PsychoEducation method is an exception, also showing as much or more benefit in preventing depressive relapse).
Like almost all the others, this therapy also focuses on the importance of “adherence” — staying on medications — and showed a specific benefit there (it’s a little unnerving to note that the control patients, shown below in yellow, were not taking medications as directed half the time, and that even when improved by treatment, shown in red, that was still a problem 25% of the time):
I hope, my readers, if you’re still with me here, that you’re already seeing the main point: all these treatment have common ingredients. As a final demonstration of that point, here are results Dr.Miklowitz and his team obtained when they combined FFT with IPSRT. IFIT is the combined therapy, in red; the comparison group received treatment as usual plus 2 family education sessions and crisis management (CM):
- All five treatments shown here have solid evidence demonstrating their effectiveness (for the moment, no other psychotherapies have this and to my knowledge, no others are being researched in this way).
- Most have a strong education component.
- Most emphasize looking for, and planning for, signs of relapse.
- Most include some way of looking at “illness acceptance“, including what’s getting in the way of that.
- Several include some emphasis on regular rhythms of sleep and activity.
- One emphasizes involving the family very directly. Some are more intensive (time, energy, and presumably money) than others.
More Workbooks by Psychotherapy Type
Below is a diatribe about research money (we don’t get bucks like cancer and heart disease centers: frustration) and a list of books for each of these kinds of therapy.
To answer this properly, with the same kind of emphasis on evidence, will take additional research. Since these studies cost a lot and take years of work, I doubt we’ll see “head-to-head” comparisons (we don’t have that for many medications, either). For now it looks simpler to conclude that they all have some merit and that elements of each, at minimum the simpler ones, should be part of a treatment package that most patients with bipolar disorder receive.
Unfortunately, at least in my area, money problems are driving treatment programs in the opposite direction (e.g public mental health programs). So once again I think it may be up to people like you, who have managed to read all the way to this point, to get these treatments for yourself or your family member.
You can buy the books and teach yourself from them (here they are again with a link to Amazon.com so you can see more about each — but watch out for getting sucked into buying something you didn’t need while you’re there!)
#1. Prodrome Detection — no manual for this to my knowledge (the paper is linked in full text though)
#2. PsychoEducation — the manual is now available in English: The Psychoeducation Manual for Bipolar Disorder. This is a remarkable text. It details each of the 20 sessions from a group leader’s point of view, including tips on opening the session, specific tools used in each session, things to watch out for in that particular session — and all with a very amusing sense of humor.
#3. Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder
Dr. Basco is one of the originators of bipolar-specific CBT, as evidenced by her comprehensive book on the subject:
Cognitive Therapy for Bipolar Disorder by Basco and Rush
#4. IPSRT — this treatment approach is described by Ellen Frank, one of the developers of this method, in her book entitled Treating Bipolar Disorder. There is no other treatment manual available to my knowledge. Here is a review of the book.
#5. FFT — Bipolar Disorder: Family-Focused Treatment Approach (for therapists) and The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide: What You and Your Family Need to Know (for patients and families)
Perhaps you can recruit some local therapist — one that your insurance might pay for; and one that may be easier to find than a psychiatrist who knows and is willing/able to use all this stuff — to work through the book with you. (This may be a pie-in-the-sky idea, I should warn you. I learned some methods this way, but I’m not sure it’s typical of what other therapists do).