Psychotherapies for comorbid anxiety in bipolar spectrum disorders

Martin D Provencher, Lisa D Hawke, Emmanuelle Thienot
Journal of Affective Disorders 2011, 133 (3): 371-80

BACKGROUND: Comorbid anxiety disorders are highly prevalent in bipolar disorder and have been shown to have serious negative impacts on the course of illness. The pharmacological treatment of anxiety can interact with the bipolar disorder and has not been proven effective. As such, many have recommended the psychological treatment of anxiety. This paper reviews the literature on psychological treatments for anxiety comorbid to bipolar disorder.

METHOD: The Medline, PsychInfo and Web of Science databases were thoroughly examined for relevant treatment studies.

RESULTS: Despite frequent recommendations in the literature, surprisingly few have studied the psychological treatment of comorbid anxiety in bipolar disorders. Nevertheless, preliminary results suggest that comorbid anxiety disorders can be effectively treated in a bipolar clientele using cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy or relaxation training. In contrast, interpersonal, family therapy and psychoeducation alone would not seem to be beneficial treatment alternatives for anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy appears to reduce the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and general symptoms of anxiety among patients with bipolar disorder. However, the long-term maintenance of anxiety treatment effects may be somewhat reduced and adaptations may be called for to augment and sustain benefits.

CONCLUSIONS: There is an urgent need for randomized controlled trials of different forms of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders comorbid to bipolar disorder. Until such trials are available, the most promising approach would appear to be the sequential or modular CBT-based treatment of the anxiety disorder.

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