It is not uncommon to skip or cancel plans because we are feeling down or unmotivated. It is also not uncommon for us to wait to feel better or feel more motivated before taking action. Although canceling plans to focus on taking care of ourselves is sometimes the right decision, avoiding activities that can help us stay active and socially engaged can hinder our ability to bounce back from a period of low mood.
Behavioral activation is a well-researched intervention commonly integrated as part of the treatment strategy for depression. When we experience symptoms such as loss of motivation, decreased pleasure or enjoyment, or feelings of worthlessness; we are often much less likely to engage in activities we typically enjoy. Although this might initially provide relief, continued avoidance of such activities often leads to a worsening of our mood, increased anxiety, and feeling more disconnected from others. Behavioral activation helps to disrupt this cycle of avoidance by helping us create a road map with goals for increasing our engagement in meaningful and pleasurable activities.
Determining which activities to increase is often the first step. Activity tracking and monitoring is one helpful place to start, particularly if you are uncertain about which activities will be most beneficial for you. Start by recording what you do every hour and rate your mood on a scale from 0-10, with “0” indicating low mood and “10” indicating good mood. After tracking and rating your actives, you can select which activities resulted in an improved mood. Some behaviors, such as exercise, can typically be used right away as we already know this to be helpful to most people.
In addition to monitoring our activities and rating our mood, we can also explore our values to determine what leaves us feeling more connected to meaning and purpose in our lives. For example, you may value health and therefore find meaning through fitness and nutrition, or you may value family and find meaning though planning and engaging in activities as a family. You may value other things such as community, social justice, spirituality, or the arts. Focusing on activities that align with your values is likely to be beneficial.
In addition to values, it is important to consider what brings you pleasure. Although there can be overlap, pleasurable activities are often done for inherent enjoyment and satisfaction. Create a short list of the activates that bring you pleasure and use this to help guide your behavioral activation plan.
The second step is to select a few of the activities from your list and incorporate these into your daily or weekly routine. In setting goals, it is important to be realistic. Therefore, it is usually best to start with 2-3 of the easiest activities to increase the likelihood of your follow through. Consider any barriers that might arise and make a plan or schedule to remind yourself of your goals. If you are struggling, very simple or small activities are the best places to start. In some cases, you may simply engage more frequently in your current pleasurable activities and use mindfulness to connect more intentionally.
It is also helpful to pay attention to your mindset and self-talk. This strategy will be less helpful if you are unnecessarily critical of yourself or judgmental about your efforts. Practice self-compassion and avoid being discouraged if you do not complete your goals or if the experience is less helpful than you had hoped. Remind yourself that it is often not just one activity or experience, but a collection of positive experiences and pleasurable activities over time that is most impactful.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
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