BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 17, 2021 (edited 8-27-2022)
Behavioral activation is a basic coping strategy that may mitigate difficult and discomforting emotions. Behavior activation concepts may be added to other primary treatments for many emotional disorders.
Behavior activation works through focusing attention on activity. During bouts of depression or anxiety, we tend to focus on the emotion. The survival purpose of healthy feeling affects is to commandeer our attention, bringing focus to important elements in our environment.
However, some emotional experiences are maladaptive. They create a self contained feedback loop that instead of pushing attention outward, draw attention inward to suffering—we experience pain without seeking an escape. Perhaps, a consequence of traumatic experiences where we were assaulted by life without an evident escape. We learned helplessness.
Behavior activation is pushing attention back outside, focusing on helpful behaviors instead of wallowing in painful emotions, waiting for a rescue from outside resources. The goal of behavior activation is to increase engagement in intrinsically rewarding activities, inviting wellness through action.
Behavior Activation treats troublesome feelings and moods by increasing engagement in intrinsically rewarding activities, inviting a return to wellness through action.
Behavior Activation System
The behavioral activation system is hypothesized to facilitate behavior through approach motivating emotions. It has also been referred to as the behavioral approach system and the approach motivation system (Johnson, et al., 2012, p. 245). Behavior activation therapies try to jump start this system when emotions stop motivating healthy behaviors, such as wanting to stay in bed, in a dark room, when depressed.
The desire to escape into sadness often perpetuates the depression. Instead of motivation to do behaviors that heal, we hide in the sorrow and it dominates.
Emotion plays a significant role in behavior. Stimuli that arouses a feeling affect commandeers attention. Diana Fosha explains, "affect and the attention it brings set the stage for the salience of heightened affective experiences: emotion is motivating and opens up new possibilities, creates new configurations, new directions, and new goals-and new goals organize new events" (2000).
Negative Feeling Affects and Protective Behaviors
Negative feeling affects adaptively motivate protective behaviors. We pull back, withdrawing from threatening stimuli in our environment. We overcommit and the heaviness looms warning of potential burnout. so we pull back, lighten our load and recover. In maladaptive responses, we pull back too far, escape into our tormented mind, and fear returning to the normalcy of living.
Pulling back too far, failing to engage in living has a snowballing effect, enhancing life problems rather than protect against them.
The theory behind behavior activation is that healthy engagement will invite positive emotions. Perhaps, a reversal from Barbara Fredrickson's broaden and build theory. Fredrickson theorizes that positive emotions broaden mindsets and build greater coping mechanisms. Through the security of positive emotions we explore new possibilities.
Behavior activation theory doesn't contend that the broaden and build theory is false; the theory only suggests that the reverse is also true. By engaging in positive activity, we invite positive emotions.
Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, also supports the behavior approach to improving emotions, along with cognitive restructuring. He wrote that "a success experience in achieving a behavioral goal is likely to be more powerful than cognitive methods in contradicting erroneous beliefs such as 'I am incapable of doing anything'" (1987, p. 5).
Behavior Activation and Positive Feedback Loops
The intention of behavior activation treatment is to pull us from negative feedback loops and invite wellness through prompting positive emotions through action. The basic concept is:
These behavioral staples of wellness do not come naturally when our emotions signal danger, warning of eminent threat. We pull back and cut off access to lifting behaviors that may mitigate the emotional discomfort.
Avoiding all activities that promote wellness during difficult depressions and anxieties often may perpetuate the illness rather than heal.
Implementing Behavior Activation
The on-line psychology site (Psychology Tools) suggests there are five essential steps to implement behavior activation:
Difficulties to Adhere to Behavior Activation When Motivation is Lacking
Behavior activation theory is well and good; the advice makes sense. However, implementation is another story. The theory acknowledges that the necessary behaviors to heal the despondent and gloomy moods are not naturally motivated.
The required pivot point is finding a path do something that we don't feel like doing. In severe depression and debilitating anxiety, mustering the courage to even consider action may overwhelm. We get lost in the sucking blackhole of emotion and can't even envision an escape.
We must have workable plans in place before the darkness engulfs our dreams and smothers our motivation. Mathew Tull PhD. wrote, "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" (2020).
Here are some ideas to nudge motivation in the midst of the blues:
Take the First Small Step
An extensive list of "must" accomplish tasks weighs down the mind. When viewed from the doldrums of sadness, long lists depress and discourage. Forget the list, focus on a single task. If the plan is to exercise, bring focus to the simple task of putting on your running shoes, or starting the iPod.
The simpleness begins a chain reaction of single, small activities that leads to accomplishing the larger goal. We must respect the emotion of overwhelm and only engage in small thoughts to prevent emotional overload.
Our workable plans must include activities that we know to be enjoyable. We are simply incapable of identifying behaviors that have personal significance during bouts of depression. Nothing attracts. Thoughts of behavior are void of hope or pleasantness. Normal motivation evade.
We must take note of personal pleasures experienced during more balanced moments, knowing which activities have personal value and which activities are a chore. Write them down.
When the waves of sorrow begin to crash on the shores of your mind, pull the list out, identify an activity and take a baby step towards activating the behavior—put on those running shoes.
Specific and Measurable
Since planning is an energy demanding activity, it is scrapped by our survival oriented minds during distress. Preparation for behaviors during cheerless moments must be specific.
Back to the exercise example, we must do more than list "exercise" on our list of personally important activities. Perhaps, we place on our list "walk around the block." This is a specific activity that is measurable. We can feel the joy of accomplishment upon completion. Planning and completing an activity is a step towards a positive feedback loop, reversing the emotional onslaught of weighty emotions.
When the activity is non-specific, it easily ends in failure, contributing to the sour moods. If we have a vague plan to ride an exercise bike, inevitably we will tire quicker than normal. Our motivation will slip and we will quit, perceive the workout as a failure and gain nothing from the few minutes on the bike.
List Activities from Easiest to most Difficult
We need a list of simple behaviors that can easily be performed without thought. Our lists should include small behaviors proven distract and easy to quickly accomplish:
Tull reminds that "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" (2020).
Identify Lifting Relationships
Everything we do requires energy. Thinking, feeling and doing all draw from personal resources. We deplete resources through living. Connection to healthy others replenishes and strengthens. We draw upon others resources in times of need and support in times of strength.
These relationships provide life lines. A partnership can handle difficulties better than an individual. However, we often get involved in relationships that draw more than they support. When struggling with our own emotional demons, these life-sucking relationships prevent healing. We must carefully identify who strengthens and who doesn't during our better moments so we can smartly avoid those who weigh us down during times of sorrow.
Books on Behavior Activation
A Few Final Words on Behavior Activation
There is no perfect path to escaping emotional upheaval. Anxieties and depressions roam the world, waiting for vulnerability to attack. Healthy behaviors tend to assist recovery bringing our emotions back into balance. A prepared plan provides strategic advantage when our minds are too weighed down to think, plan and motivate.
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Beck, Aaron T. (1987). Cognitive Therapy of Depression (The Guilford Clinical Psychology and Psychopathology Series). The Guilford Press; 1st edition
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books.
Johnson, S., Edge, M., Holmes, M., & Carver, C. (2012). The Behavioral Activation System and Mania. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 8, 243-267.
Tull, M. (2020). 8 Tips for Using Behavioral Activation to Treat Depression
(2021) Behavior Activation. Psychology Tools. Published 5-26-2021. Accessed 12-14-2021.