8 Tips for Using Behavioral Activation to Treat Depression

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Behavioral activation is a basic coping strategy, as well as a short-term treatment, that can have a tremendous effect on your mood. If you're already getting treatment for depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), studies show that behavioral action can be an effective part of that treatment.

When you feel depressed or anxious, you may be less likely to do the things you enjoy or avoid other potentially pleasurable activities. The consequences of this are often a worsening of mood, feeling more detached from others, and an increase in anxiety. As you feel more and more isolated, you may begin to be at risk for depression.

How Behavioral Activation Works

In behavioral activation, you identify specific goals for the week and work toward meeting those goals. These goals take the form of pleasurable activities that are consistent with the life you want to live. For example, if you want to live the life of a compassionate person, you might choose goals focused on volunteering, helping a friend out, or donating to charity.

Behavioral activation is designed to increase your contact with positively rewarding activities. Particularly when you notice yourself feeling anxious or depressed, you should work on an activity. This teaches you that your behavior can affect your mood.

How to Enhance Behavioral Activation

Although behavioral activation is a pretty simple coping skill, it can be difficult to do, especially when you're not feeling motivated. However, there are some ways you can make behavioral activation more effective.

Identify Activities That Are Uniquely Important to You

When implementing 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 aren't important to you, it's going to be difficult to be motivated and to really feel connected to the activities you're engaging in.

When you're choosing activities for behavioral activation, try to think of what's 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're experiencing high levels of anxiety.

Make Sure Activities Are Specific and Progress Is Measurable

Come up with specific activities where you can measure your 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 choose 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 behavioral activation.

List Activities From Easiest to Hardest

Behavioral activation can be hard to do when you're feeling down or very anxious. Therefore, you want to make sure you can see progress quickly. If you're experiencing very low motivation, the most important thing is to get moving to make sure that avoidance behaviors associated with anxiety and depression don't set in.

You can do this by ranking your list of activities from easiest to hardest. Once you have this list set up, start with 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's important that behavioral activation doesn't become overwhelming or a source of stress for you. By starting out with easy activities, you can also build 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.

Enlist the Support of Others

If you're finding that it's 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 exhibit avoidance behaviors. They may be stuck in their heads, worrying, or ruminating about the past. This makes it difficult to connect with the positive aspects of engaging in a meaningful activity. Being mindful ​and present when you're engaging in behavioral activation can ensure that you fully experience and engage in your chosen activities.

Take Things Slowly

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 and, if you have depression, help treat it.

Especially if you're experiencing low motivation or a high level of anxiety, it's 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 a small number of activities can have a big impact on your mood.

Reward Your Progress

Finally, remember to reward yourself for the progress that you make. Recognize your accomplishments. Doing so can increase your 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.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Ekers D, Webster L, Van Straten A, Cuijpers P, Richards D, Gilbody S. Behavioural activation for depression; an update of meta-analysis of effectiveness and sub group analysis. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(6):e100100. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100100

  3. Soleimani M, Mohammadkhani P, Dolatshahi B, Alizadeh H, Overmann KA, Coolidge F. A comparative study of group behavioral activation and cognitive therapy in reducing subsyndromal anxiety and depressive symptoms. Iran J Psychiatry. 2015;10(2):71-8.

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.