Four teenagers sitting in front of a coffee shop, social behavioral activation.

How to Incorporate Behavioral Activation to Boost Mood and Energy

What is Behavioral Activation?

You know the saying “Actions speak louder than words”? That saying is the essence of Behavior Activation.  Behavioral Activation (BA) is a specific component of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). BA can be used on its own as an independent treatment, or can be used alongside other CBT skills such as cognitive reframing and affect regulation. 

Behavioral activation helps us understand how behaviors influence emotions, and helps us change our emotions by changing our behaviors. BA was developed primarily for treating depression, and is based on research showing that depression often interferes with our ability to do things that bring joy and purpose to our lives. When we stop doing the behaviors that bring joy and purpose, we feel more depressed - and this cycle of behavior and emotion continues.

BA interrupts and reverses that cycle by helping people build back into their lives the behaviors that bring them joy and purpose. 

How does Behavioral Activation work?

Behavioral Activation works on the principle that if we change our behavior we can change our mood. By building in behaviors that typically bring joy, happiness, satisfaction, pride, or connection, over time we will start to find our mood improving. These behaviors “activate” positive emotions such as joy, happiness, connectedness, self-worth, mastery, and pride.

The important first step of BA is to acknowledge that at first we may not want to do these behaviors naturally. Because of anxiety, depression, or other symptoms, we may not have a natural desire to go have fun, socialize with friends, or do productive things such as our laundry or errands. The core idea of BA is to start doing these behaviors even when we “don’t feel like it” or “don’t have the energy to” - because the theory and research suggests that the more positive behaviors we engage in, the better our mood and energy become. 

The next step of BA is to do activity scheduling - which is simply a fancy way of saying making a daily plan for the activities you’ll do. If, due to anxiety or depression, you really haven’t been doing much besides staying home, you’ll want to start small. That may be scheduling in one short (15-30 minute) activity per day, such as one short walk outside or cleaning up one small area of your living area. A key component of BA is early success, so being thoughtful about the initial activity scheduling process will promote positive results.

Examples of Behavioral Activation

What are some good activities to start doing if you’re trying BA? Think about identifying a couple behaviors each across a few important categories:

Fun/enjoyable activities

These are activities that at some point in your life you have genuinely enjoyed. These might include arts and crafts, projects, reading, being in nature, cooking, or anything that brings you joy. 

Social activities

These are activities that bring you connection with other people. Social activities might be attending a club meeting, going to a social event, or planning coffee or dinner with a friend. Social activities are often also fun activities (going for a walk or watching a movie with a friend for example). Social activities can activate feelings of connectedness and worth.

Physical activities

Movement also tends to improve mood, so scheduling in time for physical activity is a way to activate behavior. Physical activity can be anything from walks or home stretching to doing a workout class online to going to a gym or exercise class. Also bonus if it includes other people - hiking with friends, signing up for a yoga class together, or simply riding bikes in the neighborhood. Physical activities can activate positive emotions such as joy and satisfaction.

Purposeful activities

These are productive activities that get the stuff of life done. While they may not always be fun (who truly enjoys folding laundry?), they do give a sense of satisfaction afterwards that is positive. It’s important to feel proud and accomplished, so scheduling in time to do chores, complete school or work assignments, and run errands absolutely counts as behavioral activation. 

Positive Benefits of Behavioral Activation for Mental Health

Behavioral Activation was developed originally for the treatment of depression and other mood disorders. These disorders are often characterized by withdrawal, avoidance, and isolation - all of which only serve to exacerbate depressed mood. BA can be used to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems that include avoidance or isolation. 

Studies show that BA can improve:

  1. Depressed mood - people who engage in BA regularly find that they feel less down and depressed.
  2. Anxiety - BA helps reduce the avoidance behaviors that often characterize anxiety disorders, leading to less anxious mood.
  3. Energy - contrary to popular belief, doing too little doesn’t actually tend to improve energy levels. Most people find that increasing their activity level leads to improved energy and motivation.

How can I get started with Behavioral Activation?

Are you ready to try BA? Great! You can get started either on your own or with a therapist. 

On your own, you can create your own activity schedule for the week. Identify 3-4 days during the week that you could add in an activity from the list above. Be thoughtful about making these SMART goals:

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Relevant

Time-Bound

What does a SMART goal for BA look like? For example, rather than say “I’m going to start running this week” - especially if you haven’t been running at all lately - consider saying “On Wednesday and Friday I’m going to walk a ½ mile loop around my neighborhood at 4 PM after my classes are done.”  It’s easier to meet a BA goal that is crystal clear about what, where, when, and how!

If you’d like structured support changing your behavior, consider working with a therapist. Nearly all licensed therapists are familiar with the principles of behavioral activation; you can also confirm that your therapist uses cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques to ensure they can support you in your behavior activation goals.

Happy activation!

June 29, 2023
Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development. She is currently a professor in the PhD program in Clinical Psychology at Seattle Pacific University.

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