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Managing Depressive Symptoms with Behavioural Activation Techniques

Did you know that nearly 60% of individuals experiencing depression refrain from seeking help, often fearing social rejection and worrying about the potential impact on their personal or professional lives?

Depression is a serious mental health condition that can impact various aspects of a person's life, including their relationships, work or academic performance, physical and emotional well-being, self-esteem, and overall sense of fulfillment in life.

Behavioural Activation is a practical therapy technique that helps individuals break the cycle of depression by engaging in activities that bring a sense of accomplishment and pleasure. Used in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), these activities help influence mood, increase positive experiences, and encourage a proactive approach to managing and overcoming depressive symptoms.

Exploring Depression and the Symptoms Involved

Depression can be difficult to put into words. For some, it can be compared to carrying a heavy backpack. This unrelenting burden is draped over us like a suffocating shadow. No matter how much we want to put it down, it clings to us, making every step forward feel like a monumental effort.

The only difference is this metaphorical backpack is filled with our own burdening emotions, negative thoughts, and a heavy sense of overwhelm that hinders any motivation or momentum.

Though every person experiences depression in their own way, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Persistent low mood or sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or emptiness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Irritability or intolerance of others
  • Difficulties making decisions
  • Loss of motivation or interest in previously enjoyable activities

The weight we carry around every day can feel heavier and more suffocating. There are days when getting out of bed feels impossible – let alone going out, accomplishing work goals, picking up groceries, or attending a birthday party. It's as if the burden amplifies, enveloping us in a dense fog that obscures even the simplest joys in life.

Only once we begin to address the layers of our depression, are we capable of lightening the weight we carry, paving the way for a journey toward healing and emotional resilience.

Rediscovering Yourself Using Behavioural Activation

Behavioural activation is a strategy used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to address various mood disorders, including depression. It’s a common form of psychotherapy that aims to modify behaviour in a way that helps an individual re-engage with activities and experiences that bring joy and fulfillment. Moreover, it replaces negative avoidant behaviours with positive rewarding behaviours to reduce depression symptoms.

Depression is often associated with a ‘downward spiral’ that can cause us to feel worse and worse as the days go on. Behavioural activation helps interfere with the spiral by making intentional actions and choices that improve our mood and motivation.

Managing Depressive Symptoms with Behavioural Activation Techniques - Diagram - On Your Mind Counselling

It’s a short-term therapeutic method used to:

  • Enhance exposure to positive reinforcers or activities that elicit healthy behaviour
  • Lower the instances of avoidance behaviours that reduce access to positive reinforcers (i.e. sleeping late into the afternoon, social withdrawal, spending more time on social media, drug use, etc.)
  • Understand and address the barriers to engaging in enjoyable behaviours

Behavioural activation involves collaborative work with a therapist to help you identify specific activities that fuel your motivation, boost confidence, and rekindle your sense of purpose.

Whether it's reconnecting with hobbies like crafting or working on a puzzle, socializing with friends you haven't seen for some time, or engaging in physical exercise, the purpose of behavioural activation is to create a structured schedule that incorporates these positive elements into your life.

Behavioural Activation Techniques

Within the therapeutic setting, behavioural activation techniques can be individually tailored to provide a dynamic approach for alleviating depression, emphasizing purposeful and positive behaviours, as well as active engagement with life.

Here are three important techniques used to help individuals navigate their depression more productively.

1. Activity Monitoring

At the beginning of your therapy journey, you and your therapist will engage in a proactive approach to managing your symptoms. The first way this is done is through a behavioural activation technique known as ‘activity monitoring’.

This is a way your therapist can get an authentic understanding of what exactly you’re doing throughout your day (including the frequency and duration) and how it relates to your mood. The goal is to identify patterns between activities and mood, helping you recognize connections between your behaviour and emotional states.

Often, therapists will utilize a mood log as their tool to monitor this activity. A mood log helps track activities and moods, which can offer valuable insights into the impact of different behaviours on your emotional well-being.

A mood log involves:

  • Activity Recording: A list of daily activities, ranging from routine tasks (i.e. making your bed, brushing your teeth, doing the laundry, taking the dog for a walk, etc.) to leisure activities or social interactions (i.e. going to the gym, grabbing a coffee with a friend, attending soccer practices, etc.).
  • Mood Rating: For every recorded activity, you will then rate your mood before, during, and after the engagement, which involves assigning either a numerical or descriptive rating to your emotional state.
  • Pattern Identification: After a few weeks, you and your therapists will discuss certain patterns that emerge in the review of these mood logs, observing how certain activities are consistently causing either positive or negative moods.
  • Behavioural Analysis: Your therapist will then collaborate with you to identify behavioural patterns that give rise to low mood or depressive symptoms. 
  • Productive Goal Setting: Gaining insight from the mood logs, you and your therapist can work together to adjust your activities by setting realistic goals to increase positive or mood-enhancing activities while also reducing those that elicit negative emotions.

Now that we have a plan in motion, it’s time to jump into the next step of behavioural activation: activity scheduling.

2. Activity Scheduling

According to a 2020 study, individuals who experience depression require certain types of activities that enrich and enhance their lives. These activities fall into three categories:

  1. Pleasant activities refer to any task or leisurely activity that promotes feelings of enjoyment, pleasure, or amusement which may help reinvigorate morale and boost feelings of optimism
  2. Mastery activities give rise to opportunities to learn through practice to develop a sense of competence or accomplishment
  3. Meaningful activities are defined as any activity that offers an ‘optimal experience’ often reported as though you are ‘living up to your values’ and gaining a genuine sense of satisfaction

Activity scheduling is a valuable therapeutic technique that utilizes the information from the mood log to increase engagement in pleasant, mastery, or meaningful activities.

The foundation of activity scheduling lies in the creation of a structured daily routine. This structure not only brings a sense of order to the day but also serves as a strategic framework for promoting engagement in meaningful tasks.

You and your therapist will work together to break your day into manageable segments, making time for various activities that enhance your well-being.

3. Social Engagement

Being socially connected within a stable, supportive network enhances individuals’ ability to make healthier life choices and fosters resilience in facing challenges or setbacks.

Prioritizing and engaging in social activities helps to counteract the tendency to withdraw socially from others – a symptom which often accompanies depression. Though this isn’t necessarily a ‘stand-alone’ technique involved in behavioural activation, it is a method for encouraging individuals to initiate contact with others, build and maintain supportive relationships, and participate in social activities.

Integrating uplifting social experiences into your schedule is likely to boost your mood, alleviate feelings of isolation, and elevate your overall well-being.

Connect with a Therapist

At On Your Mind Therapy, our team of licensed therapists offers valuable insights, empowering individuals to navigate challenges, set realistic goals, and foster a renewed sense of meaning.

Together, you'll collaboratively work on activity monitoring, scheduling, and social activation tailored to your unique needs to ignite positive change, resilience, and a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Take the first step towards your well-being—schedule a free 30-minute consultation to start your journey as early as today!

Learn how Behavioural Activation can guide you through depression. Connect with a therapist for personalized support today.

Written By Sally Polus LAPS, BSW, MSW, RSW

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