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  • Writer's pictureErika Agbabian, AMFT

How to Overcome Depression with Behavioral Activation

When attending therapy or working on our mental health, we often consider the effects our thoughts and emotions have on our behaviors and lifestyle. However, many overlook the profound impact our daily behaviors themselves can have on our emotional state. Behavioral activation, a therapeutic approach rooted in the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), offers us a simple and invaluable tool to rekindle our motivation, find joy in daily life, and combat the grip of depression and anxiety. It is commonly used by therapists and has become a first- line treatment for treating depression. With the guidance of a therapist, the five simple steps listed below can help you interrupt the vicious cycle of depression and take back control of your emotional well-being.

What Is Behavioral Activation?

Behavioral activation is a therapeutic technique that focuses on identifying and modifying behaviors that reinforce depressive or anxious states. Unlike traditional talk therapy, behavioral activation centers around action, aiming to help individuals break the cycle of avoidance, withdrawal, and inactivity that often accompanies mood disorders. This approach is based on the idea that thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all interconnected in a causal way. Therefore, modifying one will have some impact on the others. For example, when we're depressed or anxious, we tend to withdraw from activities we once enjoyed, isolate ourselves from social interactions, and become trapped in a cycle of negative thinking. These behaviors tend to feel natural and somehow more desirable to us when we’re caught in these emotional slumps. However, they really just reinforce our depression by further perpetuating negative symptoms like reduced energy, loss of pleasure, negative thoughts, discouragement, and isolation. Behavioral activation seeks to reverse this pattern by encouraging individuals to engage in meaningful activities, even when they don't feel like it. This begins to reset our thoughts and emotions and allows us to create healthy patterns and habits to make us feel more like ourselves.

Key Steps

Step 1: Identify Avoidance Behaviors Start by recognizing the activities you've been avoiding due to depression or anxiety. These may include hobbies, social events, or even daily chores. Step 2: Set Meaningful Goals Define clear and achievable goals that align with your values and interests. These goals should serve as the foundation for your daily activities. Step 3: Create a Daily Schedule Develop a structured daily schedule that incorporates these activities and goals. Having a routine can provide a sense of purpose and direction and keep you on track for reaching your goals.

Step 4: Monitor Your Mood Keep a journal to track your mood before and after engaging in these activities. This helps you understand the impact of your actions on your emotional state by training yourself to be mindful of how these behaviors and specific activities affect your mood. Step 5: Challenge Negative Thoughts It can be challenging to implement new behaviors and shift to more positive emotional states without encountering some negative or discouraging thoughts. This is your depression fighting back as you begin to minimize it and leave it behind you. Be aware of self-critical or defeatist thoughts that may arise during the process. Challenge these thoughts with evidence of your achievements and positive experiences.

Benefits of Behavioral Activation

Following these steps may at times feel repetitive and tedious, but encourage yourself to keep going! The time it takes for different individuals to experience noticeable, long-lasting positive changes in their mood through behavioral activation varies. Some may notice a difference in their mood right away or in the first couple of days while for others, it may take more commitment and persistence. However, chances are that either way you will eventually start to feel more energized, motivated, content, and like your real healthy self.

Behavioral activation has been shown to produce numerous benefits. It can restore your motivation and sense of purpose through the small and achievable steps you take. Engaging in pleasurable and meaningful activities can also create a positive feedback loop, reducing feelings of depression and anxiety. Behavioral activation has the potential to even boost your self-esteem and self-efficacy as you begin recognizing your achievements and become proud of yourself for taking action, even when it was difficult. As you re-engage with the world, you'll likely improve your social connections and relationships as well which increases your support system and further reinforces positive mental states. Perhaps most importantly, behavioral activation promotes lasting change by creating a sustainable lifestyle that supports your mental health.

Remember, the journey toward recovery is unique for each person and it is normal to experience challenges engaging in and sticking with these behaviors. Afterall, depression can be profoundly tenacious and all-encompassing. Seeking support from a therapist can provide you with the guidance and structure you need to succeed and keep you on track for building a brighter and more fulfilling life. If you are struggling with a mood disorder such as depression and think you could benefit from behavioral activation, reach out and schedule an appointment today.

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