Art Therapy Treatment For Bipolar Disorder

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

You might associate the word “therapy” with traditional talk therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). However, many different types of therapy treatment can help individuals experiencing mental illness or its symptoms. One such method is art therapy, which may help promote self-expression through creative outlets like visual art, music, and poetry.

Art therapist professionals offer their services to a variety of people, including those living with bipolar disorder symptoms. Bipolar art therapy can be a helpful way to provide treatment for bipolar symptoms and those associated with other mood disorders. This therapeutic approach fosters a strong therapeutic alliance and understanding between the patient and therapist while assisting in the treatment process and potentially improving self-confidence and the ability to develop social skills.

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What is bipolar disorder? 

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition involving shifts in an individual's mood, energy levels, need for sleep, and capacity for everyday responsibilities. It may be characterized by patterns of manic (or hypomanic) episodes and depressive episodes. These episodes might last anywhere from several days to weeks or more. 

There are two types of bipolar disorder, including bipolar I and bipolar II. Bipolar II is characterized by bipolar depression with or without hypomanic states. It does not include mania. Bipolar I is characterized by manic episodes with or without depression and hypomania. 

Hypomania is a lesser form of mania that may or may not cause distress or severe symptoms. Symptoms of mania may include: 

  • Feeling high, elated, extremely irritable, or touchy 
  • Excessive appetite for food, drinking, sex, or other pleasurable activities
  • Feeling wired, jumpy, or more energetic than usual
  • A decreased need for sleep or difficulty falling asleep 
  • Rapid speech or talking about several different things at once
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling more powerful, influential, or talented than others
  • Increased emotional conflicts with others

Symptoms of a depressive episode may include:

  • Feeling sad, down, empty, or anxious for long periods 
  • Feeling restless 
  • Increased fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much 
  • Trouble making decisions 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Talking slowly
  • Forgetting things
  • Feeling unable to do tasks 
  • A lack of interest in almost all activities, including previously enjoyed hobbies
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless 
  • Thoughts about death or suicide

If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 988.

In some cases, someone experiencing bipolar disorder may experience manic and depressive symptoms simultaneously or in cycles, which can negatively impact his or her sense of well being. In addition, mania or bipolar depression may cause symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions or hallucinations. In some cases, an individual may require hospitalization for these episodes to improve reality orientation. 

An individual with bipolar disorder may experience significant challenges at work, in relationships or family life, during parenthood, or while carrying out daily tasks. 

What causes bipolar disorder?

Current clinical neuroscience research indicates that there is no single cause of bipolar disorder. Instead, many researchers agree that certain risk factors, including genetics, brain structure, and brain functioning, could contribute to a person's chance of being diagnosed with the condition. 

Other risk factors that may increase a person's likelihood of developing the disorder include:

  • Stressful environments (e.g., poverty or abusive family situations)
  • Childhood trauma 
  • Stressful events (e.g., car accidents or losing a loved one) 
  • Unhealthy habits (e.g., not eating or sleeping enough)
  • Substance use 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

What to do if you think you are experiencing bipolar disorder

There is no cure for bipolar disorder. However, research and literature in the mental health profession have identified available treatments, such as medicine, that may help people with bipolar symptoms manage their mental illnesses, develop social skills, reconcile emotional conflicts, and improve their quality of life.

If you believe you may be experiencing signs of bipolar disorder, contact your primary care physician or a clinic for an evaluation to rule out any other possible medical conditions. From there, search for and connect with a mental health professional who can assist you in gaining a sense of control over your symptoms and help you establish a treatment process and plan. Many patients find support and understanding through therapy.

Treatment for bipolar disorder 

Treatment for bipolar disorder may include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. In addition, individuals can explore different types of therapy to find what works best for them. 

Therapy options might include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) 
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Support groups
  • Art therapy
  • Trauma therapy, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) 
  • Person-centered therapy
  • Online therapy 
  • Medications

Discuss your options with your current medical or mental health provider to learn more. 

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What is art therapy?

According to the American Art Therapy Association, "art therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, foster self-esteem, improve self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change."

During sessions with an art therapist, an individual might engage in artistic expression through a creative process, including visual art such as drawing, painting, sculpting, or different art forms, such as art media. Research indicates that art therapy is most beneficial when the patient engages fully and forms an emotional bond with their therapist, referred to as a “therapeutic alliance.” The individual does not have to be artistically inclined to benefit from making art, which can help them manage behavior, foster self awareness, process pent up emotions, and improve personal well being. You don’t need to have the talent of Vincent Van Gogh to participate in art therapy!

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, art and art therapy can offer many benefits for individuals living with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. For example, it can assist with emotional and stress release while encouraging self-expression and might offer positive effects in changing brain functions, similar to CBT. Art therapy may also provide a healthy outlet for people to express their emotions, particularly for those who have difficulties doing so verbally.

Benefits of art therapy for bipolar disorder

Individuals with bipolar disorder may find art therapy a healthy way to cope with emotions. For example, chronic stress could trigger manic or depressive symptoms in those experiencing bipolar disorder. Engaging in art therapy sessions might provide a way for them to manage stress levels. In a recent case study, art therapy was shown to significantly improve the emotional well-being and self-expression of individuals struggling with various mental health challenges.

Promoting stable mood 

Art may have a powerful effect on promoting stable mood states, which may benefit individuals seeking methods for maintaining a stable mood and avoiding extreme shifts.

Creative expression 

Those with bipolar disorder might also benefit from using their creative expression as a unique way to monitor their symptoms. Artwork could help them understand their mental states and identify potential triggers that could initiate mood and behavior shifts.

This benefit may also be helpful when an individual looks back on what they have created later. They might be able to gain insight into potential patterns of their symptoms so they can develop a plan for managing triggers in the future.

Emotional expression 

Some individuals with bipolar disorder may feel disconnected from the rest of the world, including their romantic partners, family, parents, or children. They might feel isolated and misunderstood by others, and artwork could allow them to express painful emotions in meaningful ways.

The artwork created during therapy sessions may feel too personal for anyone to see, which can be normal. During art therapy, you may choose who has permission to view your art. It could be that the art remains available only to you. 

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Are you looking for help managing emotions with bipolar disorder?

Finding support for bipolar disorder

Many forms of therapy are available for those experiencing a mental health condition. Art therapy is just one recently demonstrated treatment modality. If you prefer quick and accessible therapy, you might also consider online counseling. 

Research demonstrates that online treatment can be as valuable as in-person counseling for bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. In addition, it can benefit those who would like the convenience of therapy from their homes and is more easily accessible to those in remote areas. 

Online treatment can also help individuals experiencing bipolar disorder maintain consistent treatment through their highs and lows. For example, during a depressive cycle, finding the motivation to leave the house for therapy may feel challenging. If you're open to reaching out for support online, consider a platform such as BetterHelp, which offers a growing database of counselors. 

Takeaway

Speaking with a licensed professional for diagnosis, treatment, or informed medical advice and options can be a helpful first step when dealing with symptoms of bipolar disorder or anxiety. For some, art therapy can be a valuable tool, serving as an outlet for expressing thoughts, feelings, and emotions and helping to create a connection between the body and mind.

Regardless of what types of treatment you decide to try, you are not alone. At any point in your journey, consider contacting a counselor, especially if you're dealing with co-occurring conditions like schizophrenia. Reaching out for professional support could be a crucial step in managing mental health.

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