Treatment can help many people, including those with the most severe forms of bipolar disorder. An effective treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy, also called “talk therapy.”
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. Episodes of mania and depression typically come back over time. Between episodes, many people with bipolar disorder are free of mood changes, but some people may have lingering symptoms. Long-term, continuous treatment can help people manage these symptoms.
Certain medications can help manage symptoms of bipolar disorder. Some people may need to try several different medications and work with their health care provider before finding medications that work best.
The most common types of medications that doctors prescribe include mood stabilizers and atypical antipsychotics. Mood stabilizers such as lithium or valproate can help prevent mood episodes or reduce their severity. Lithium also can decrease the risk of suicide. Medications that target sleep or anxiety are sometimes added to mood stabilizers as part of a treatment plan.
While bipolar depression is often treated with antidepressant medication, a mood stabilizer must be taken as well, as an antidepressant alone can trigger a manic episode or rapid cycling in a person with bipolar disorder. Because people with bipolar disorder are more likely to seek help when they are depressed than when they are experiencing mania or hypomania, taking a careful medical history is essential to ensure that bipolar disorder is not mistaken for depression.
People taking medication should:
- Talk with their health care provider to understand the risks and benefits of the medication.
- Tell their health care provider about any prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or supplements they are already taking.
- Report any concerns about side effects to a health care provider right away. The health care provider may need to change the dose or try a different medication.
- Remember that medication for bipolar disorder must be taken consistently, as prescribed, even when one is feeling well.
Avoid stopping a medication without talking to a health care provider first. Suddenly stopping a medication may lead to a “rebound” or worsening of bipolar disorder symptoms. For basic information about medications, visit NIMH’s Mental Health Medications webpage
. Read the latest medication warnings, patient medication guides, and information on newly approved medications on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website.
Psychotherapy, also called “talk therapy,” can be an effective part of the treatment plan for people with bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy is a term for a variety of treatment techniques that aim to help a person identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. It can provide support, education, and guidance to people with bipolar disorder and their families.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an important treatment for depression, and CBT adapted for the treatment of insomnia can be especially helpful as a component of the treatment of bipolar depression.
Treatment may also include newer therapies designed specifically for the treatment of bipolar disorder, including interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) and family-focused therapy. Determining whether intensive psychotherapeutic intervention at the earliest stages of bipolar disorder can prevent or limit its full-blown onset is an important area of ongoing research.
Visit NIMH’s Psychotherapies webpage
to learn about the various types of psychotherapies.
Other Treatment Options
Some people may find other treatments helpful in managing their bipolar symptoms, including:
- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a brain stimulation procedure that can help relieve severe symptoms of bipolar disorder. ECT is usually only considered if an individual’s illness has not improved after other treatments such as medication or psychotherapy, or in cases that require rapid response, such as with suicide risk or catatonia (a state of unresponsiveness).
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a type of brain stimulation that uses magnetic waves, rather than the electrical stimulus of ECT, to relieve depression over a series of treatment sessions. Although not as powerful as ECT, TMS does not require general anesthesia and presents little risk of memory or adverse cognitive effects.
- Light therapy is the best evidence-based treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and many people with bipolar disorder experience seasonal worsening of depression in the winter, in some cases to the point of SAD. Light therapy could also be considered for lesser forms of seasonal worsening of bipolar depression.
Unlike specific psychotherapy and medication treatments that are scientifically proven to improve bipolar disorder symptoms, complementary health approaches for bipolar disorder, such as natural products, are not based on current knowledge or evidence. For more information, visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website
If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
or chat at 988lifeline.org
. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line
(text HELLO to 741741
). For medical emergencies, call 911.
Coping with Bipolar
Living with bipolar disorder can be challenging, but there are ways to help make it easier for yourself, a friend, or a loved one.
- Get treatment and stick with it. Treatment is the best way to start feeling better.
- Keep medical and therapy appointments and talk with your health care provider about treatment options.
- Take medication as directed.
- Structure activities. Keep a routine for eating, sleeping, and exercising.
- Try regular, vigorous exercise like jogging, swimming, or bicycling, which can help with depression and anxiety, promote better sleep, and is healthy for your heart and brain.
- Keep a life chart to help recognize your mood swings.
- Ask for help when trying to stick with your treatment.
- Be patient. Improvement takes time. Social support helps.
, bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness, but long-term, ongoing treatment can help control symptoms and enable you to live a healthy life.
SOURCE: National Institute of Mental Health. (2022). Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved October 1, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder