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What is the Most Common Treatment for Bipolar Disorder?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated May 17, 2024
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The most common treatment for bipolar disorder is the drug lithium, although some anti-seizure and anti-psychotic drugs are also used routinely. Behavioral therapies are also used with many patients, as they have proven beneficial once the medicinal treatments begin working. Sometimes a combination of lithium and certain antidepressants is used, although it depends on the patient and which aspect of the disorder is most prominent.

Bipolar disorder is a mental condition which results in periods of severe depression alternated with periods of mania. Between these two extremes are episodes of normalcy, where no symptoms are present. The movement from a period of depression to mania to normalcy is referred to as a cycle. Periods between cycles can last for months, or even years. Other times patients can move from one extreme to the other continuously, also known as rapid cycling.

Lithium is one of the oldest and most commonly used treatment for bipolar disorder. The main purpose of the drug is to stabilize mood and prevent the shifts in behavior common in those with bipolar disorder. It has also been shown to reduce the number of manic episodes.

Patients with few manic periods but frequent or prolonged periods of depression may be given an antidepressant while also taking lithium, or another treatment for bipolar disorder. This helps to alleviate the sadness and hopelessness common in depression. It should be noted that taking certain antidepressants alone or in high enough doses can cause mania in a bipolar person. In some rare cases, it may cause a state of mania in someone who does not normally exhibit bipolar behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is another treatment for bipolar that has become very popular. It involves “rewiring” the brain by forcing patients to keep track of common triggers for both depressive and manic episodes. Then, when a trigger occurs, instead of slipping into the old thought processes and feelings, patients are given new coping mechanisms in order to stave off a bipolar cycle. For instance, if a patient becomes stressed about something and feels himself having negative thoughts, he may listen to a favorite song instead or call a friend. Eventually, patients learn to replace negative thoughts with positive ones by repeating them over and over again.

Most treatment for bipolar is fairly successful, if the condition is treated by a doctor and/or therapist trained in working with the disorder. Bipolar disorder was misunderstood for many years, and research is still being conducted to fully understand the mechanisms which cause it. Luckily, patients are often able to try various combinations of medications and therapies in order to find a match that works for them.

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