Behavioural activation is a type of treatment recommended for people with a diagnosis of depression/low mood. It emphasises the importance of ‘activating yourself’ with activity that motivates you, i.e., pleasurable activity. This treatment approach is proven to be just as effective as more complex psychological therapy. It is therefore something that everyone with depression, whether diagnosed or suspected, should consider engaging in. The rationale behind this is that our behaviour can affect our mood. Knowing this, when we feel depressed or anxious it is important that we focus on an activity that is positively rewarding, since this will have a directly positive impact on our mood, helping to reduce our troubling symptoms.
To implement behavioural activation (as briefly described above), people are usually prompted to create a list of realistic tasks and responsibilities that they are keen to investigate, as well as identify any goals that they would like to meet. The tasks on this list should motivate people, being the things that ‘make them tick.’ Tasks and goals therefore vary massively from person to person, so what works for one person, might not work for another. For example, I enjoy running, and this is something that I do to motivate myself. My mum, however, doesn’t enjoy running. One of the things that she does enjoy though, is gardening. Gardening is something that motivates her, lifting her mood.
The basic ‘rule’ underpinning the concept of ‘behavioural activation’, is this; ‘if it motivates you, you should just do it’ (that is, only if it is sensible and legal, of course.) This isn’t selfish, for doing the things we like to do means that we are taking responsibility for our own feelings. Why is this important? Because we are all responsible for the way we feel and subsequently, the way we act. It is therefore our responsibility to make sure that we are actively participating, not in what we think we ‘should ‘be doing, but in what we get genuine enjoyment and happiness from- the things that are uniquely important to us, and possibly, only us.
The activities we set don’t all need to be new to us. It can be helpful for us to track our activity over a few days, making a note of which activities lead to us feeling best. We should be asking ourselves what activities were associated with our highest mood/what were we doing when our mood was the highest, and what activities were associated with our lowest mood/what were we doing when our mood was the lowest? Of course, we should strive to do more of the activities that put us in a good mood and avoid the ones that put us in a bad mood.
It is important that when we create our list of tasks, responsibilities, and goals for the week ahead, the activities on that list are consistent with the type of life we want to lead. They should align with our values (i.e., the things that matter to us.) A value that matters greatly to me is family, therefore I have dedicated a specific day of the week to engaging in an activity with my mum (Wednesday) and my dad (Saturday.) On these days I feel good, because I am living in accordance with the things I value most. You should be doing this too. If you are a horse lover, for example, you might put ‘go to watch a horse race’ on your list of things to do or, if you place a lot of importance on education and learning, you might put ‘learn about something new’ on your list. Formulating activities based on pre-existing passions and goals (as can be seen in the examples listed above), not only leads to the presence of an increased sense of productivity, but it also leads to people being one step closer to reaching their long-term goal, whatever that goal may be. For me, one long-term goal I have is to ‘do something for the greater good.’ To achieve this goal, an activity I should look to participate in is volunteering for a charity in which I get an opportunity to work with likeminded people where a real difference can be made. The prospect of doing this excites me, and your goal and activity should excite you too, even more so when you come to the realisation that the world really is your ‘oyster’, for there are no limits to what you can do if you set your mind to it.
It is also important that any tasks set are specific, meaning that their progress and subsequent completion can be easily identified. This is of high importance as it is usually upon a tasks completion that we experience feelings of accomplishment which contributes to us feeling productive. The more we experience these positive feelings, the more likely we will be to return to the activity in the future.
A final important point to remember is that the setting off tasks should not cause one to feel overwhelmed or stressed as a result, for this is counterproductive to the aim of reducing depressive symptoms. To avoid feelings of stress arising, activities should be spaced out accordingly (e.g., rather than allocating ‘cleaning the house’ to do on a Friday, instead be more specific- ‘clean the kitchen on a Friday. Dust the rooms on a Saturday’, etc.) The activities should also be varied in nature. You don’t want everything you do to be based on cleaning, for over time this will wear a bit thin and any positive effects from the activity will be unlikely to last very long. There should be a diverse array of activities set, from areas such as work and volunteering, to relationships and personal care. Participating in lots of varied activities translates to a more balanced life, which is something that everything should be aiming for.
This sounds all well and good, but the part that people often find difficult, is finding what it is that they get enjoyment from. We know that doing the things we enjoy is good for our mental health, hence why it is a recognised form of treatment for depression. What we don’t always know, however, is what those things that we enjoy actually are. The only way we can find what we enjoy, is by trying new things. There is something out there for everyone. If you don’t believe this to be the case, it’s because you haven’t found it yet. Keep searching, and you will find your passion(s.) And, you must be open minded, for you might just surprise yourself with the things that you enjoy. In fact, your passion might be something that you don’t even know exists yet. Keep that in your thoughts when you feel as though you are lacking motivation and fulfilment. You never know what’s waiting for you around the corner…
If you are struggling to think of activities, try asking your family/friends, or even just doing a quick Google search to see what things other people do to lift their mood. Examples of such activities that you could participate in include exercising, meeting a friend, cooking a meal, cleaning the house, listening to music you like, or doing something nice for someone. These are just a few examples; the possibilities really are endless. For more ideas, consider checking out the ‘activity catalogue’ on pages 4-7 of this document: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/-/media/CCI/Consumer-Modules/Back-from-The-Bluez/Back-from-the-Bluez—02—Behavioural-Strategies.pdf.
So, now you know what behavioural activation is all about, its time to go and buy yourself a nice weekly planner, determine your values, and get activity setting. Give your life meaning again, whilst recovering from your depression and anxiety. It’s a win-win situation. What are you waiting for?! Start living your best life TODAY!!