The varieties of talk therapy can be confusing: Is a counselor required? What’s the difference between CBT and DBT? Do I need a workbook or something?
Talk Therapies, Decoded
If you’ve considered talk therapy for bipolar disorder, you’ve probably heard of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and its proven benefits for those of us living with mental health conditions. CBT aims to help people make permanent behavior changes by shifting negative patterns in thinking and behavior.
Its cousin, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is similar, but with a narrower focus on acceptance and communication. Then there’s interpersonal social rhythm therapy (IPSRT)—another cousin that focuses on tracking and adjusting one’s routine and managing relationships with others. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is in the same vein, as are art and music therapy.
The SMART program has its place in the mix, too; it stands for self-management and recovery training and is popular in recovery-based circles—mental health and substance use alike. Like the therapies above, this self-guided program aims to help people deal with an ongoing problem in their life.
But I have to admit, these different types of therapies have always been a squishy concept for me to grasp: Do I need to work with a therapist in order to reap the benefits? What’s the difference between CBT and DBT? (Should I care?) Do I need to buy a workbook or something?
Boiling It Down to the Basics
And OMG with all the acronyms.… I’m a person who loves a good acronym, but for heavens’ sake even I have my limits!
With time and a chip on my shoulder about it, I’ve come to see that the common formula for all these types of therapies is the same:
Identify a problem.
Change the way you think about that problem.
Behave differently to solve the problem.
In my mind, I lump these different approaches into one concept. I don’t like to think of behavior therapy as a menu of things from which to select: Hmmm… I think I’ll have the DBT—well-done, of course—with a side of IPSRT and a SMART program to go!
My point is—at the end of the day, I suppose I just want to order one of everything.
None of these behavior-based approaches can even come into play unless we are willing to put in the “mental work” of learning more about ourselves. And that is something we must do internally. We may use a guide for assistance—such as a therapist, a program, or a workbook—but any progress made in therapy is done by first changing our thinking.
CBT is not some magical witchcraft that only a licensed professional can administer; it’s just … living well by thinking ahead. Knowing yourself. Coping. Getting things done. One might call it “mental gymnastics,” even.
There’s only so much room here in my brain for remembering a bunch of acronyms that essentially boil down to the same thing. And, conveniently, cognitive behavior therapy—aka “CBT”—in practice, equals Changing our Behavior with Thoughts.
For simplicity’s sake, I think we’re better off forgetting the other stuff and just sticking with this definition. (Sorry, psychiatrists!)
So, given that we know the recipe for success (identify a problem + change the way we think about that problem + behave differently to solve the problem)—we can use whatever tools we have at hand to put together this recipe.
Anyone can DIY some CBT! You’ve likely been doing it to some extent or another for your whole life.
If you are looking for different tools to add to your own “mental health toolbox,” I’ve put a few of my own CBT (Changing Behavior with Thoughts) exercises into words here, which has been both weird (assigning names to my own random thought processes just feels awkward) and helpful (they feel so official now!).
5 DIY CBT Examples from My Own Life
#1 Reductive Thinking
Reducing a mound of complicated feelings, thoughts, and words into core basic feelings; a way of getting to the root of things in order to build up better from there.
The core feelings (in a nutshell) are happiness, sadness, and anger. If we can distill our thoughts into as few words as possible, it’s easier to recognize which one of these core feelings we’re experiencing—and have more clarity about our best path forward.
A way of encouraging a daily or weekly mindfulness and self-reflection practice. (“Ritual” just means you’re obligated to do it regularly).
If we can create a pleasant, quiet, and unique sensory experience for ourselves to enjoy when we’re alone, it’s easier to make a commitment to routine self-reflection.
From singing a song to doing some sun salutations; from taking a walk to doing some moongazing—the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating your own healing ritual. Just know that the goal is to clear your mind and seek peace on a regular basis.
#3 Energy Screening
Observing a person’s (positive/negative) “energy” when you encounter them; using proactive thinking instead of reactive thinking when it comes to communicating effectively with others.
If we can acknowledge what kind of energy everyone is bringing to the table, it’s easier to see our place in it—and ultimately have more control over the situation’s outcome. This is good advice for anyone, but as PWB (people with bipolar), we are more likely to bring the wrong kind of energy to a situation—or to misinterpret a situation—which leads to conflict and problems for us down the road.
A way of “borrowing” someone else’s brain to help with processing information when bipolar makes thinking complicated; getting into the mindset of a trusted mentor, adviser, or character to think about how they might respond in a given situation.
Looking at things through a wise and peaceful mentor’s eyes can help us rise up and gain a better perspective on our situation. For example: What would Brené Brown do?
#5 Sound or Silence Exposure
Using your sense of hearing to influence your mood in a positive way.
Do you need speeding up, or do you need to slow your pace? Consider the way you’re feeling before blindly trusting the algorithms or “regularly scheduled programming.”
Do you need to figure yourself out? Then go for silence.
Respect the power of music—it can and will influence your mood. Don’t let it change you in a way that’s not good.
You Can Use a Workbook—If You Want To!
I don’t mean to discourage anyone from learning about the different types of behavior therapy or from utilizing therapists, programs, or workbooks to help you explore these (or any other) concepts. It is all worthwhile. Just don’t let it overwhelm you.
I’m speaking to the folks who, like me, might be a little fuzzy about what’s what and what’s useful.
CBT isn’t fancy, proprietary psychologist stuff. You’re already doing it. Do it more! Use your imagination!
And please—feel free to share your own DIY CBT moves here!
Brooke Baron has a BA in English, a minor in philosophy, and a lifelong obsession with language. She is the author of A Beginner's Guide to Being Bipolar.
Although born and raised in Alabama, she has been a proud California resident for 10+ years. During a professional stint in Silicon Valley—in both the corporate and private business sectors—she handled internal and external communications, office design and construction, photography and graphic design, executive assistance, and functioning on very little sleep.
Brooke now specializes in "New Human Orientation" from her home in the suburbs. She has a young, loving, growing family of five and is fueled by that love and coffee.
In addition to caring for the rest of Team Baron, she enjoys writing, reading, researching miscellaneous topics, and funneling manic energy into creative projects. With so many balls in the air—including bipolar II disorder—balancing her life is like balancing two kangaroos on a see-saw. She offers consulting services for the bipolar community at Better Bipolar Balance.
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