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Behavioral Activation

Commonly in depression it is the case that the lower our mood the less active we are. The less active we are the fewer opportunities we have for rewarding things to happen to us. And the fewer rewarding things that happen to us the lower our mood. Behavioral activation is one way out of this vicious cycle. It is an evidence-based treatment for depression.

The relationship between activity and mood

Researchers have found that there is a close relationship between our activity and our mood. When we are feeling good we often spend time with people whose company we enjoy, do things we enjoy, and take on new tasks and adventures that challenge us as individuals. Engaging in all this activity has the feedback effect of acting to support our mood:

  • Having positive relationships with other people can make us feel connected
  • Doing things we enjoy increases our chances of feeling rewarded
  • Challenging ourselves as individuals means that we have a chance to grow and develop

The reverse is true too. Studies of people suffering with depression show that they engage in less activity overall [1]. And if someone’s activity is reduced, by pain or injury for example, then they are at greater risk of developing depression [2, 3].

Breaking the cycle

What do we know so far?

  • Low activity > Low mood
  • Low mood > Low activity

One potential way out of this trap might be to wait until something improves our mood, and then we might feel more like getting back to our old levels of activity. This is a passive approach though: the problem with it is that we might be left waiting for a long time. Many episodes of depression can last for months at a time!

A more proactive approach to breaking the cycle is to increase our level of activity even if we don’t feel like it to begin with. This is the approach taken by behavioral activation.

How to do behavioural activation

Behavioural activation isn’t just about doing any activity, it is important to pick things which are meaningful to you – activities that you enjoy. If you are just starting out it might be helpful to treat it as an experiment – you are aiming to find out what effect activity has on your mood.


[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

[2] Elfrey, M. K., & Ziegelstein, R. C. (2009). The “inactivity trap”. General hospital psychiatry, 31(4), 303.

[3] Roshanaei-Moghaddam, B., Katon, W. J., & Russo, J. (2009). The longitudinal effects of depression on physical activity. General hospital psychiatry, 31(4), 306-315.