By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
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One of the toughest symptoms to challenge with depression is the lack of motivation. Many of you may even know all the skills in the world to help improve your depression, but if the motivation isn’t there to use them, the depression stays like that heavy cloud over your head. One way to gain motivation is through the use of a skill called behavioral activation.
In this post (and the next), we will be covering behavioral activation and all the benefits it provides. It is a great skill to have in your depression survival toolbox (and also helps with shut-down anxiety, the lack of focus that comes with ADHD, and procrastination).
What is Behavioral Activation?
Behavioral activation looks at the cycle depression plays in the brain (loud amygdala, quiet prefrontal cortex, no serotonin to use, all put together to create the “blahs”) and gently coerces your darn amygdala to put its energy to good use. Just like other coping skills, behavioral activation uses the body’s natural reward system (endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin) to activate the prefrontal cortex and naturally tell that darn amygdala to “shut up.”
Behavioral activation is more than just a tool that can zap the lack of motivation, but it can help you discover what behaviors trigger depressive symptoms. It is true, sometimes, the triggers for depressive symptoms come from our own behaviors. When we take the time to identify those triggers, we can do something really cool: we can change it!
Coping Skills Alert
To use behavioral activation, we first need to have a good understanding of those external and internal triggers we talked about in Identifying Anxiety Triggers. Remember that journaling exercise we talked about? That is part of behavioral activation! By identifying the trigger that sets off the depression, the emotion that came from the trigger, and what you ultimately did (good or bad) when you experienced that emotion, you are providing your prefrontal cortex with objective facts to help the hippocampus form a memory of what you would like to change.
Once you have tracked your mood and identified the cycle of your depression, you can now start to set small goals (specifically goals surrounding changes in your behavior). Small, easily achievable goals increase the chances of a positive outcome versus an increase in depression. These goals come from what you value the most in life, what brings us pleasure in life, and lastly, help us develop a new skill. How do we know what we value? Let’s keep reading to figure that out.
Knowing What you Value
Although it may take some brainpower, it is good to explore your value system. Not only does it help improve self-esteem, but it also helps prepare your brain to release serotonin! Think about what you hold near and dear to you. Take a look at the list below and take a moment to rank how important these things are to you ( one being the highest value of course):
- family relationships
- physical health
- mental health
- friends/social life
- career choice
- work ethic
- hobbies/leisure activities
- personal growth
- role in your community
That is a lot to think about! As we think about our values, it helps us make a realistic goal as to what we would like to change when our depression cycle becomes active. Value we can that identify the activities that naturally give us pleasure (A.K.A. release the feel-good neurotransmitters). In activities that include our value system, serotonin flows naturally. What does that mean for our depression? The symptoms of our depression slowly decrease! Bonus points if you can participate in this pleasurable activity for longer than 20 minutes a day. Why? It allows your prefrontal cortex and that darn amygdala to start to open up its communication channels. By practicing a leisure activity on a regular basis, you are promoting brain health, hippocampus healing, and telling that darn amygdala to shut up!
Master Behavioral Activation
The next part of behavioral activation, is mastery. This is where we take the skills that release the feel good neurotransmitters, and develop them into a sense of accomplishment. If you recall from Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, accomplishing a task naturally releases serotonin into the brain.
The last step of behavioral activation includes setting SMART goals. This takes those pleasurable/leisure skills, values, and mastery skills and turns them into doable goals that you can schedule. SMART goals is an acronym for:
- S – Specific: make the goal specific
- M – Measurable: identify when you have achieved this goal
- A- Attainable: Make sure the goal is actually possible
- R- Realistic: Developing the goal to be within your abilities
- T – Trackable: track the progress to your goal and celebrate that progress!
Even though these are self-explanatory, it is important to remind ourselves if we don’t set specific and realistic goals we can actually achieve, we are setting ourselves up for failure. That’s right, self-sabotaging comes in the form of unrealistic goals.
How soon will I see improved motivation?
Now how long does behavioral activation take to see the benefits? Well, you can feel it pretty quickly (when you allow yourself to see ALL the emotions from the activity). On average, it takes 10 minutes a day for about 60 days (give or take a few) to make behavioral activation your new pattern and rewire the connection between your prefrontal cortex and that darn amygdala. In short, keep practicing!!!
Thank you so much for taking time to learn about behavioral activation! It is something that is a hard skill to implement, but when you do, it works wonders!
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- daughters et al (2018). The effect of a behavioral activation treatment for substance use on post-treatment abstinence: a randomized controlled trial. Retrieved from The effect of a behavioral activation treatment for substance use on post‐treatment abstinence: a randomized controlled trial – Daughters – 2018 – Addiction – Wiley Online Library
- Gepp, Karin (2021). What is behavioral activation? Retrieved from Behavioral activation: How it works, examples, and more (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Psychology Tools (date unknown). How To Use Behavioral Activation (BA) To Overcome Depression. Retrieved from Using Behavioral Activation to Overcome Depression | Psychology Tools