Behavioural activation is a type of evidence-based therapy that has good support for its use in improving depressive symptoms (Veale, 2008).
The idea behind behavioural activation is that people with depression are often feeling low and unmotivated to engage with the world. This leads to a loss of positive reinforcement (i.e., things that make people feel good and effective), which in turn leads to even more depressed feelings.
Behavioural activation work to re-add feelings of pleasure and mastery in people’s lives. As the terms suggest, pleasure refers to activities that make us feel good (e.g., spending time with friends, a hot shower) and mastery are activities that make us feel productive (e.g., cleaning our house, learning a language). Some activities give us both!
Some people may have a lot of pleasurable activities in their lives but feel less mastery; other people might spend a lot of time engaging in productive tasks (e.g., work) but have less time for pleasure. Unsurprisingly, having an excess or lack of either (or both) can lead to depressive symptoms.
The article discusses how you can incorporate behavioural activation in your life and improve your mood!
Making a list of activities for pleasure and mastery
The activities that people find enjoyable and productive depends on the person themselves.
Start with making a list of activities that you find pleasure and mastery:
- Taking a hot shower (pleasure)
- Make the bed (mastery)
- Practice learning a new language (mastery)
- Spending an afternoon lunch with a friend (pleasure)
- Reading a new book (pleasure and mastery)
- Going for a walk (pleasure)
If you’re having a hard time figuring this piece out, think about what activities you used to enjoy or find meaning in. Or if you were feeling better, what kind of things would you want to do. These might be places of inspiration to draw from to get the ideas rolling!
Sorting activities by difficulty
Next, sort these activities by level of difficulty in terms of completing: easy, medium, difficult. For example, taking a hot bath might be an ‘easy’ level task to complete, whereas having a weekend vacation with your partner might be a ‘hard’ level task.
Difficult tasks may be overall more enjoyable or meaningful, but they may not always fit well into a busy schedule or if you’re feeling particularly low. Therefore, starting with easy tasks that give you the biggest bang for your buck can be helpful if motivation is a problem.
Using SMART Goals to set yourself up for success
When we’re setting up activities to include in o our lives, we want to set ourselves up for success! It can feel discouraging to plan to do something but then have it fall through.
Therefore, SMART Goals can be a really helpful to plan activities in a way that support our ability to accomplish them.
For example, an activity you might want to include is taking walks. To make it a SMART Goal, you would specify the when, where, how long, and how often.
- “I will take two walks this week after work for 15 minutes around the neighborhood park”
If you think the goal might be too lofty, you can always amend the goal to make it more likely to complete. For example, only taking one planned walk in the week or reducing the walking time.
Another strategy to troubleshoot is reflecting on possible barriers beforehand.
For example, one barrier might be: “I would feel really tired after work, so I might not go for the walk”. To address this issue, you might decide to go for a walk before work (to avoid feelings of lethargy) or put on your walking shoes 30 minutes before the workday ends to make the transition easier. Be creative with your problem-solving!
Rating feelings before and after trying the activity
Sometimes, our low mood makes negative predictions that we won’t benefit from engaging in these activities.
In these moments, it’s helpful to take on a curious scientist approach and test to see if that belief is true.
Before the activity, write down your current mood rating (1 = very low to 10 = very high) and then write down your prediction on how you will feel after the activity. Once you’re done, engage in the task and reflect on how you ended up feeling! This is a great way to test our beliefs that we sometimes assume is correct.
That’s it! Feel free to choose activities that work best for you to add a bit more pleasure or mastery into your life. Try to keep an open and creative mind when deciding on activities, how to go about setting yourself up for success, and whether it’s going to be helpful.
If you don’t feel like these will help, remember that sometimes what we do can precede how we feel. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where we didn’t feel like doing something, but felt a little better afterwards!