BABCP | British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies > What is CBT? > CBT for Specific Problems > Bipolar disorder

What is bipolar disorder?

Someone with bipolar disorder may experience extreme changes in mood. These changes will be more severe and last longer that the everyday ups and downs that many of us experience. Mood can vary from feeling depressed and hopeless, to feeling ‘high’ or irritable (known as hypomania or mania).

People with bipolar disorder may also have unusual experiences during a mood episode, such as hallucinations and delusions. Alongside difficulties with mood, individuals may experience changes in their thoughts, behaviours and day-to-day functioning.

There appears to be no single cause which explains why someone develops bipolar disorder; while men and women are equally likely to be affected. Evidence suggests a role for genetic, biological, clinical factors and life events. Psychological processes are also important, such as thinking style and coping strategies. Typically, it will start with a first episode of depression in late adolescence or early adulthood.

How CBT is used to treat bipolar disorder

CBT is a structured psychological therapy in which the therapist and client work together on specific problems and set clear goals. A person should expect between 12 to 20 sessions, but the length of treatment depends on the individual presentation.

Homework can often form a large part of CBT as much progress can be accomplished between sessions. Your therapist will be able to advise you on how to continue using CBT techniques in your daily life after your treatment ends.

Some aims of CBT for bipolar disorder are:

  • Psycho-education – helping the client to understand more about bipolar disorder and their individual presentation
  • Identifying links between thoughts, feelings and behaviours
  • Cognitive restructuring - learning ways to identify the content of thoughts and re-evaluating negative thinking patterns
  • Learning strategies to promote effective problem solving
  • Finding ways to maintain regular patterns of eating, sleeping and physical exercise
  • Learning to identify potential triggers for changes in mood (ie stress, caffeine, alcohol and/or drug use)
  • Learning to identify early signs of a person’s changes in
  • mood and developing coping strategies to prevent a full-blown mood episode developing
  • Identification and use of personal and professional support networks

Listen to our podcasts

Let's Talk About CBT is a podcast about CBT: what it is, what it's not and how it can be useful. Dr Lucy Maddox interviews experts in the field including people who have experienced CBT for themselves. Each episode includes a mix of interviews, myth-busting and explains CBT jargon.

You can download our podcast - CBT for Bipolar Disorder. Links to other resources to help with understanding bipolar disorder can also be found here.

Other resources

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on the assessment and management of bipolar disorder.

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