How to Use Behavioral Activation to Treat Depression

Why this method can reduce your risk

Boring couple at cafe
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Behavioral activation is a basic coping strategy that can have a tremendous effect on your mood. When people feel depressed or anxious, they may be less likely to do the things they enjoy or avoid other potentially pleasurable activities.

A consequence of this is often a worsening of mood, feeling more detached from others and an increase in anxiety. In addition, as people feel more and more isolated, they may begin to be at risk for depression.

Behavioral activation is designed to increase your contact with positively rewarding activities. In behavioral activation, you identify specific goals for the week and work toward meeting these goals.

These goals take the form of pleasurable activities that are consistent with the life you want to live. For example, someone who wants to live a life where they are a compassionate person might choose goals focused on volunteering, helping a friend out or donating to charity.

Although behavioral activation is a pretty simple coping skill, it can be difficult to do, especially when you are not feeling motivated. However, there are some things you can do to make your behavioral activation more effective. Some tips for "super-charging" behavioral activation are described below.

Identify Activities That Are Uniquely Important to You

In doing behavioral activation, sometimes people identify activities that are important to other people.

Basically, people identify activities based on what they think they should be doing as opposed to what they want to do. If you come up with activities that are not important to you, it is going to be difficult to foster motivation and to really feel connected to the activities you are engaging in.

When identifying activities for behavioral activation, try to think of what is uniquely important to you.

What matters to you? What kind of life do you want to build for yourself? Come up with specific activities that really matter to you and that are about your values and desires. This will help give you that extra boost of motivation when your mood is down or you are experiencing high levels of anxiety.

Make Sure Activities Are Specific and Progress Is Measurable

Come up with specific activities where you can measure progress. That is, can you quickly determine whether or not you have accomplished a task? If the answer is "no," then the activity you identified is likely too vague.

For example, let's say that you came up with the activity, "Get organized." What does this mean? What do you want to organize?

If you organize your bills, does this mean that you have accomplished this task, or is there more to organize? Instead, you may want to come up with the activity, "Organize my kitchen." This is an activity that is specific and its completion can easily be measured. When activities are specific and measurable, it can give you more direction in doing behavioral activation.

List Activities From Easiest to Hardest

Although behavioral activation may sound easy, it can be hard to do when you are feeling down or very anxious. Therefore, you want to make sure you can notice progress quickly. If you are experiencing very low motivation or high levels of anxiety, the most important thing is to get moving to make sure that avoidance behavior doesn't set in.

You can do this by ranking a list of activities from easiest to hardest. Once you have this list set up, choose a couple of activities that are going to be very easy for you to accomplish. In doing so, you can make sure that you get active but also don't stress yourself out too much.

It is important that behavioral activation doesn't become overwhelming or a source of stress for you. By starting out with some easy activities, you can also foster motivation that can eventually make it easier to tackle the harder activities.

Come Up With a Variety of Activities

You also don't want behavioral activation to become boring. Mix it up when it comes to the activities that you choose. Come up with a variety of activities across a number of different life areas, such as work, relationships, personal care and family/friends. The more variety you have, the more balanced your life will become and the more likely your motivation to continue to use behavioral activation as a coping strategy for your PTSD and depression will continue.

Enlisting the Support of Others

If you are finding that it is difficult to be motivated when it comes to behavioral activation, ask others for support. Establish a contract with a friend or family member. Let them know about your activities and what you would like to accomplish during the week.

Your friend or family member can then help you accomplish that activity or check in with you during the week to see how your progress is going. They can also serve as a cheerleader for you, increasing your motivation.

Be Mindful

Even when people are active and engaging in pleasurable activities, they can still avoid. They may be stuck in their heads, worrying or ruminating about the past. This is going to make it difficult to connect with the positive aspects of engaging in a meaningful activity.

Being mindful when you are engaging in behavioral activation can ensure that you fully experience and engage with your chosen activities.

Take Things Slow

Behavioral activation is an excellent way of addressing some of the symptoms of PTSD, including avoidance behavior and symptoms of emotional numbing. In addition, behavioral activation can reduce your risk for depression. Although behavioral activation may sound simple enough, it can be difficult to do, especially if you are experiencing low motivation or a high level of anxiety.

Therefore, it is important to set reasonable goals and take things slow. Start off with just a few activities and from there, slowly build up the number of activities you engage in each week. Even engaging in a small amount of activities can have a big impact on your mood.

Finally, remember to reward yourself for the progress that you make. Recognize your accomplishments. Doing so can increase motivation to keep moving forward, especially during those times when your mood is down. With one step at a time, you can use behavioral activation to build a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

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