What we do is often driven by how we feel. I feel like going for a walk – therefore, I go for a walk. Although following a feeling (also known as “emotional reasoning”) can be perfectly fine in many different situations, this strategy can be problematic when someone is experiencing depression. The reason is because people who are depressed don’t feel like doing anything. This creates a vicious cycle because it reduces the amount of positive reinforcement (e.g., enjoyment, mastery, self-efficacy) in their lives, which maintains their depressed state. Behavioural activation is one effective way to break this cycle (Veale, 2008).
What is Behavioural Activation?
Behavioural activation is a fancy term that is essentially based on the idea that behaviours can precede how we feel. Instead of letting how we feel affect what we do; we flip the script and do something in spite of how we feel. Many of us do not want to wake up at 6:00am in the morning to go to work, but we push on through anyways. Doing something we initially did not feel like doing (e.g., going for that walk) because we were too tired or depressed can make us feel better and have more energy afterwards. In order words, sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. In behavioural activation, we engage in activities that we add “pleasure” or “mastery” into our lives. This principle is simple but extremely effective – research shows that behavioural activation is just as effective as frontline treatments for depression, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and medication (e.g., Ekers et al., 2014).
Activities for Pleasure and Mastery
As mentioned, there are two primary types of activities we talk about in behavioural activation: activities that provide us with pleasure and activities that provide us with mastery (though some can give both!). These activities are highly individual to the specific person, but common examples could be taking a warm bath (pleasure) or learning a new skill (mastery). It is important to have a balance of both pleasure and mastery in our daily lives to feel optimal mood-wise.
So how do I get started?
Step 1: Make a list of activities that you find “pleasurable” and give you “mastery”.
Step 2: Sort these activities into “easy”, “medium”, and “hard” in terms of how simple the task is to complete. For example, making a tea might be categorized into “easy” whereas “planning a date night with my partner” might be categorized as “medium” or “hard”.
Step 3: Include these activities into your life! It’s important to set yourself up for success, so follow the S.M.A.R.T. goal approach (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-limited). A few examples of SMART goals are:
- Going for a walk twice a week in the morning for at least 5 minutes.
- Calling a friend to set a lunch appointment this week.
- Waking up at 7:30am every day using an alarm and doing 10 minutes of yoga
- Spend at least 3 evenings in the next week to read a book that you have been putting off for 15 minutes
Begin with some activities in the easy pile to get the momentum going!
How do I know if it is working?
One way to see if your activities are giving you bang for your buck is by rating how you feel before and after engaging in the activity from 1 = feeling low 10 = feeling great. You can also use other indicators of success, such as energy levels! It’s important to recognize that most activities are not necessarily going to get you from a 1 to a 10. However, even a one-point increase can be a great success because it gives real evidence that there are things you can actively do to change you how you feel. This is especially important in depression when sometimes we feel like nothing works.
Be a Curious Scientist!
At the end of the day, not everything is going to give you the mileage you were hoping for when you first engaged in the activity. It’s important to be patient and try out a few different activities to see which ones are most helpful in improving your mood. In this way, you are now a curious scientist – testing to see what works and what doesn’t work. If it helps – keep it! If it doesn’t – throw it by the wayside. There are many different activities you can try (taking a bath, reading, journaling, doing laundry, exercising, watching a movie, planning a date, among thousands more), so don’t feel like you need to be married to any specific plan. Be creative and try out different activities without being tied down by the outcome!
To get started, try adding just one simple activity today to create some momentum! If you’re interested, here’s a post on how a specific way of activity scheduling based on your own values.
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Ekers, D., Webster, L., Van Straten, A., Cuijpers, P., Richards, D., & Gilbody, S. (2014). Behavioural activation for depression; an update of meta-analysis of effectiveness and sub group analysis. PloS one, 9(6), e100100.
Veale, D. (2008). Behavioural activation for depression. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 14(1), 29-36.