Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition mental health practitioners used to call manic depression, can be a bit shocking. Fortunately, most people quickly warm to the finding and are happy to finally have an answer as diagnosis sometimes takes a long time. There is no one specific protocol for treating bipolar disorder. Instead, clinicians believe a multifaceted approach is best. Here is what to expect.

Prescription Medications

Lithium has long been used in the treatment of bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. This element helps prevent the extreme highs and lows that are common in bipolar disorder. Many clinicians feel this helps reduce the incidence of suicide as well. While lithium is very effective, the side effects can be problematic for some. Anxiety and dry mouth are common. Blood tests are required regularly to ensure the kidneys and thyroid are functioning properly. Lithium may be contraindicated in people who also suffer from substance abuse, which is common in undiagnosed patients who try to self-medicate.

Some medications used to treat seizures are also useful in treating bipolar disorder, especially if lithium isn't an option. Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers may also be used. Trying to find the right "cocktail" of drugs that control your specific symptoms can be frustrating, which is one of the reasons medications are combined with other therapies.

Electroconvulsive Therapy

In extreme cases of bipolar disorder, your psychiatrist may recommend this procedure. It used to be referred to as shock therapy or electroshock therapy, but what is actually happening is seizures being induced. Short bursts of electrical stimulation are applied to the brain, which causes seizures. This is done under anesthesia so you won't feel any discomfort.

Electroconvulsive therapy is usually reserved for patients with bipolar disorder that isn't responding to medication or when the risk of suicide is high from an ongoing depressive state. While it is quite effective in the majority of patients, it is not a cure and other treatment methods must continue to be sought or the procedure repeated periodically.

There are other brain stimulation procedures that may be used as well, including transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which uses magnetic fields, and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), which uses an implanted electrical generator to stimulate the vagus nerve in the neck.


Cognitive therapy is a very important component of treating bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy can help patients become more in tune with their moods, their body, and learn coping skills to deal with their illness.

To learn more, reach out to a bipolar disorder therapist.