Psychotherapy and Getting Over Nothing

November 13, 2012 Natasha Tracy

One of the problems with psychotherapy (and, keep in mind, I like psychotherapy) is that psychotherapists try to look for a cause for every emotion. And this seems reasonable. Or at least it does, to a person without a mental illness.

Causes of Emotions

The average person experiences a variety of emotions for a variety of reasons. Happy, sad, anxiety, anger. All quite normal. And all can typically be traced to a source. You might be happy because your baby smiled at you, you might be sad because of a loss, you might be anxious because of a job interview or you might be angry because of an argument with your spouse. All completely reasonable.

Therapy works to uncover these causes, particularly when they are obscure. We are all, of course, complex creatures.

And it seems to me (although I’m not a psychotherapist) that many psychotherapists think every feeling is related to some event, past or present. So, to them a depression is likely a result of a past traumatic event.

Causes of Severe Emotions

And psychotherapists can be right about these things. Many very serious and longstanding moods can be as a result of past experiences. It might be that a bad childhood or sexual abuse or other trauma could cause, or make worse, a serious mood episode.

But the thing is, they can also be very wrong about these things. Moods can be as a result of – nothing. Nothing at all.

Or, more specifically, they can be as a result of bipolar disorder and not an external event. It’s not so much that moods don’t have a cause; it’s just that they have a cause that you can’t talk your way out of or even point to.

Getting Over Nothing

Yet, in spite of the fact that it’s very clear to me, as a person with bipolar, that this is the case, psychotherapists will still hammer on the idea that an emotion is caused by an event. For them, it seems, it has to be as that’s the lens through which they see everything.

But take it from me, if you spend all of your waking time trying to figure out why you’re having a bipolar mood, you’ll never do anything else. In fact, you’ll drive yourself mad trying to figure out the un-figurable. Bipolar causes weird things and sometimes there’s no other reason. You need to accept that.

And you need to accept it because you have a finite amount of energy and generally that needs to be spent on 1. Fighting the illness and 2. Living your life. I’m certainly not against self-reflection and many of our past experiences do need exploring and handling, but that doesn’t mean that every emotion falls into this category.

And I admit, the idea that nothing (bipolar) is causing my moods is unsettling, but it’s just another part of this messed up illness that makes no sense but has to be dealt with.

So give yourself a break if you can’t figure out why an episode is happening. Sometimes a mood is just a mood.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2012, November 13). Psychotherapy and Getting Over Nothing, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

June, 22 2013 at 3:22 am

Great article, and a subject that needs pointing out. I saw an "alternative" therapist because people told me she had really helped them. Lots of emphasis on childhood trauma - so much so that I started to see one where there wasn't any out of a desperation to deal with depression that had been plaguing me for months. Naturally, it was a waste of time and. Bad therapy, or should I say WRONG therapy, is worse than the depression itself, just as incorrect medication can make a disorder worse.

June, 3 2013 at 5:37 pm

I recently had my first psychotherapy appointment and had the *exact same experience.* The psychologist kept saying, "Well, *something* must have caused this. Think about it." I left thinking, Well, duh. Something *did* cause it. It's called hormones and brain chemistry. I haven't gone back, not because he didn't have some valid things to say. I've just worked through things on my own a little better with my writing than what, it seems, he can offer. The psychiatrist, on the other hand, didn't say anything quite so goofy. I was just diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar two weeks ago.

Basa Ontiveros
March, 31 2013 at 11:22 am

Amanda Lynn makes a very good point because until you find a good therapist, or Pdoc for that matter, you will not know what one looks like. I agree whole heartidly. It would be great to have an advocate with bipolar to help find that. I had to find out "the hard way". When your Pdoc and therapist work together and both to see you if you are hospitalized, you have hit the jackpot.

Amanda Lynn
November, 18 2012 at 4:48 am

Rarely does this happen to me when I read your writings Tracy but this time I have to disagree. A GOOD therapist will teach us how to manage our illness. He/she will help us tease out the difference between our personality, temperament and illness. She will help us to identify our feelings accurately and talk about them---I used to act angry when underneath the anger was profound hurt. A GOOD therapist will help us figure out our earliest warning signs that we are becoming ill, and listen with compassion and (sometimes suggestions) when we are moody or responding to the vicissitudes of life. A good therapist BELIEVES in recovery and lets us borrow her hope 'till we grow our own. A good therapist will in hang with us while we go about our life in recovery until we build a life with a dependable support system. A good therapist will be in contact with our psych-pharm. Most important, a good therapist makes herself unnecessary and obsolete with a door that's always open for whenever we need to check in!
If your therapist doesn't do these things, FIND ANOTHER SHRINK!! (just my 2 cents)

November, 17 2012 at 10:18 am

As a psychotherapist and a mental health consumer - I have Major Depressive Disorder - I have the advantage of seeing it from both sides. The point you make is very valid. Having a therapist who is skilled at diagnosis will help. Being able to differentiate the anticedents to the depression will really benefit the client. As you point out it can be that the illness itself leads to symptoms of depression such as experiencing the world as a dark place, feeling little pleasure or hope for the future. Our brains seemed designed to identify a 'cause' and will even confabulate one to make sense of what it is experiencing. When I'm depressed I can identify tons of them. When I'm feeling better they strangely don't seem to impact me as much. So yes, a long-winded way to say that I agree, sometimes a depression is just a depression.

November, 17 2012 at 8:47 am

A agree with your thoughts. I think that sometimes an important part of healing or dealing with negative emotions is understanding that not everything has a complicated explanation. Like this articles says, "sometimes a mood is just a mood." This post made me think of the book "We've had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse." Here's a link to some thought provoking quotes from that book if you're interested.
Thanks for the great post!

November, 17 2012 at 4:10 am

John Wise, on that point I can't speak for all bipolars but I do know that for myself, I am extremely sensitive to other people's emotions and particularly their suffering. This has affected my life greatly because I can no longer stand to work in the helping industry because I am overwhelmed by others' emotions and suffering. Basically I have so much empathy that it disables me.

John Wise
November, 15 2012 at 1:18 pm

I am not bipolar but my closest lifelong friend is. He had a great life,too,before he became ill. I sometimes wonder if the brain disorder/screwed up neurochemistry that mentally ill people suffer from makes them super sensitive to the general background anxiety of human life. It's as if they lack the psychic prophylactic that "normal" people have that filters out the negative human energy field. We are all suffering in varying degrees,but the illness makes them susceptible to the suffering of the race. As such it has no personal cause from their own life.
Or I am full of it and this is just another unprovable theory.

November, 15 2012 at 1:08 pm

My favourite phrase: "I can't CBT my way out of this!" (my depression)
I credit CBT and DBT for helping me cope with mental illness, but they haven't actually improved my mental health. The skills I've learnt, distress tolerance etc., do give me something to fall back on when meds aren't doing their job and I think it is worth doing a course of CBT/DBT for this reason. They are kind of like survival skills. However, it bothers me no end when people blame my depression on faulty thinking. My thinking gets messed up BECAUSE I'm depressed, not the other way around. I think psychotherapy is often just another way of blaming the patient.
On a related note, you might like to read this article:

Natasha Tracy
November, 15 2012 at 5:33 am

Thanks for chiming in. I don't mean to suggest that _all_ psychotherapists are the same, of course. You are all different and some certainly do get it.
You're rare though - so keep up the good work and I agree that managing it without becoming overwhelmed is key, if you can.
- Natasha

November, 15 2012 at 4:30 am

As a psychotherapist, I would just like to add that there are those of us that do understand that moods are not always triggered by an event. Trying to figure out WHY a mood is being experienced is not as important as how to manage it without becoming overwhelmed by it. There are those of us that do get it!

November, 14 2012 at 2:37 pm

So true,the last appointment I had with my psychologist I asked him not to try and 'fix'me for that appointment, all I wanted to do was talk about my mood and I could tell at times he was chomping at the bit to intervene, to try and fix me.
Bipolar can do exactly what you say, just be moody just cause it can, I have practiced introspection for decades but Bipolar just laughs at that little trick, it overides all the good intentions in the world, just cause it can.
I used to think that when this happened I shouldnt surrender to it, I never had a chance of course, so I decided to just go along with it and accept it for what it was, and yes the responsibility guilt trip went away and acceptance that this sometimes happens is part of the relationship I have with my illness, and Im ok with that.

November, 14 2012 at 8:32 am

My pdoc suggested I see a psychotherapist, I went to one session. Understand that I think she was really good as a counselor, and I was overwhelmed by student teaching and possibly going bankrupt at the time, but the Seroquel I was on had stopped working, and I didn't see the point of continuing to go on with more appointments when that seemed to be most of the problem. We left it at my being able to see her any time I had a problem or other things I wanted to discuss and work through. I'm on Symbyax now, it's working the way it's supposed to, no depression, no manic attacks, and and only little bits of feeling overwhelmed. I'm sure the overwhelmed part will increase once I start a new job, and I will probably see my therapist then.

Joanna Rose
November, 13 2012 at 9:36 pm

I am currently waiting for my first psychotherapy appointment so this article is very relevant to me. I was referred by my psychiatrist as my depression wasn't lifting with tablets and my default setting/comfort blanket is depression. I agreed to the referral so I am seen to be "compliant", in the uk you get a couple of chances then you are dropped from their list (not particularly helpful for mental health care).
However I have no underlying trauma, I had a happy childhood, my parents are still together, I have a great job, my own place etc, I know my depression is not situational, that's why I asked for help, I'd tried everything else. I don't think some mental health professionals can get their head around this because they haven't experienced a bipolar depression, lucky them!
I will go to psychotherapy like a good patient with an open mind, at worst I will waste a few hours!

November, 13 2012 at 9:13 pm

Never had psychotherapy. Never want to. For the pure and simple reason there IS no underlying cause for my bipolar that can be treated with psycotherapy. I had a very happy childhood thanks very much.

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