Healing Bipolar Part Two: Therapy and Trauma Healing, What I Wish I’d Known

During the first decade after my bipolar diagnosis, I was encouraged to go to therapy by my psychiatrists to learn coping mechanisms for managing my bipolar. I attempted therapy several times but found it frustratingly unhelpful. 

The coping “tips” that I was given were largely ineffective and did nothing to help me cope with the overwhelming symptoms I experienced: the mood swings, negative intrusive thoughts, compulsive spending, out of control rage and suicidal ideation. 

I was exhausted with trying to “cope” with my life; I needed help!

Once I switched from medication to micronutrients and my brain began to heal, I had my first positive experience with therapy that finally helped me see the potential in this powerful tool. Over the years as I studied and continued to utilize therapy for healing, I learned some valuable lessons that I wished someone would have shared with me in the beginning.

What Is the Point of Therapy?

The purpose of therapy in treating bipolar should not just be “coping” with your symptoms. The symptoms you are experiencing are the body and mind’s indication it is in distress. What is causing the distress?

While it can be helpful to develop skills for how to manage uncomfortable symptoms in the short term, the long-term objective should be getting to the bottom of what is causing the symptoms to occur in the first place! 

Some of the underlying causes of symptoms are:

  • unhealed trauma, 
  • unhealthy thought and behavior patterns,
  • unhealthy boundaries and relationship patterns, and 
  • unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

A competent therapist can help you identify these various issues and then devise a plan to process and resolve them.

Find a Competent Therapist You Feel Safe Working With

Therapy is a tool, and the therapist is a facilitator. You need to find a competent facilitator:

  • who you feel comfortable and safe working with, 
  • Who is proactive about helping you heal, not just cope, and
  • Who is trained in modalities that will best meet your needs.

Therapy “modalities” are approaches and techniques that are used by therapists to address different issues. Most therapy modalities require specialized training; therefore therapists tend to specialize in specific areas.

It will be helpful to learn more about various options before selecting a therapist. If you have a history of trauma, you might look for a trauma therapist that specializes in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Rapid Resolution Therapy (RRT), or Somatic therapy, for example. (This is by no means a comprehensive list but serves as an example of some common trauma modalities.)

Give Your Therapist Something to Work With

Often people don’t know what to talk about when they go to therapy. It can be awkward or uncomfortable opening up to a stranger about the most personal parts of yourself. The first step is of course making sure you feel safe with your chosen therapist, but then you need to be honest with them. They aren’t mind readers and if you hold back or hide things it can hinder your healing process.

Two of the best tools I have found helpful in identifying things to work on in therapy are:

  • Using a Mood Cycle Survival Guide to help you become more self-aware and proactive in identifying connections between symptoms and triggers, and
  • Journaling, both short and long form, to help you get your thoughts out on paper.

Be Proactive, Not Just Reactive

For years I viewed therapy as a sort of triage, something to help me when I was in crisis and then when the crisis was over, I stopped. The problem this creates is twofold:

  • The therapist got a skewed picture of who I was because they only ever saw me when I was dysregulated emotionally.
  • I was never getting to the bottom of what was causing the crisis to occur in the first place!

Finally, I realized my mistake and I decided to go to therapy until I had nothing left to talk about. Working proactively with a competent therapist to identify the sources of emotional pain and dysregulation empowers you to heal instead of just cope.

Focus on Healing, Not Blaming

When you are working to heal emotional trauma or unhealthy boundaries it is easy to get focused on the person or persons who have hurt you. The problem this creates is that you have no control over another person. Focusing on them can keep you in a victim mentality and prevent healing.

A great analogy came to mind one day that helped me understand a healthier, more empowering approach. If someone caused you to break your leg–whether intentionally or accidentally–you would initially tell the doctor what happened to aid in diagnostics. The focus would then be on the injury itself, not on the person who caused the injury. You might need to set some boundaries to protect yourself from future harm, but the focus would be on healing the wound.

In therapy you can choose to empower yourself by doing the work to heal and choosing not to be a victim.

You Get Out What You Put In

When you go to therapy you need to identify changes you can make in your life–your thoughts, behaviors, self-care, etc.–that are going to move you forward on the path to healing. This requires effort outside of your sessions with your therapist. 

I have found it extremely beneficial to use a therapy notebook to write down new habits, tools and resources that my therapist and I discuss and then follow through with those things between sessions—do my homework!

Therapy Takes Time

Be patient! Therapy is like peeling back layers of an onion. It takes time to establish a safe connection with your therapist, it takes time to identify the things you need to work on, and it takes time to learn the tools that will help you heal moving forward. 

Therapy is an important element in the integrated, research-based model for healing and recovery from bipolar disorder. It enables you to identify sources of symptoms in order to process and resolve them. Learning how to use therapy effectively and proactively will move you forward on your path to living a joyful, healthy, balanced, productive life.

Click here for part one in this series: Healing Bipolar Part One: From Medication to Micronutrients, What I Wish I’d Known

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