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How Does Behavioral Activation Work for Depression?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Behavioral Activation (BA) is an evidence-based treatment for depression. It is a component in behavioral therapies (like CBT, DBT, and ABA) or can be used as a standalone treatment in itself. BA is based on the idea that experience and behavior affect one’s mood. This method encourages teens to engage in rewarding activities that ultimately produce positive emotions. As a result, the sadness associated with depression decreases. There are several types of activities that BA encourages: pleasant activities and accomplishments.

Participating in Pleasant Activities

First, Behavioral Activation works by asking the client to schedule and take part in pleasant activities throughout the week. These activities can be ones that the patient formerly found pleasurable or ones that they are likely to enjoy now. Depressed teens may want to stay in bed all day with the blinds drawn. Behavioral Activation tells them to get up, go out, approach others, and/or push themselves to take part in pleasant activities—whether it’s art, sports, reading, music, or something else—despite the fact that your depressed teen may feel they cannot, or don’t deserve, to feel more positive.

A Sense of Accomplishment

Accomplishments—however small—also lift one’s mood. Making your bed, cooking breakfast, or calling someone you’ve been meaning to catch up with are all accomplishments that make you feel good about yourself. This Behavioral Activation skill is called active coping. Active Coping suggests that patients actively take part in accomplishing tasks on their to-do list in order to relieve stress and depressive thoughts. Active coping also increases feelings of purpose and meaning in your life.

Research has shown that engaging in pleasant activities and accomplishing tasks will affect one’s mood for the better. In these ways, BA seeks to remedy the avoidance and withdrawal symptoms of depression by providing the patient with more access to mood-lifting activities. The therapist’s role in BA is to coach the client in making these life choices.

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