Robin Saffir, MA, NCC, LPC

The symptoms of depression can present various ways. Maybe you can’t seem to escape the mental chatter in your mind and the echoing thoughts are dragging you down. Perhaps you don’t feel motivated to do simple daily tasks even though you “know” you “should”. It is even possible that you feel drained by the mere thought of doing something that has been enjoyable in the past. All of these experiences are normal symptoms of depression, so, you have one option and one option only: take action.

Here’s the funny thing about depression: often times, a depressive episode is accompanied by patterns of avoidance, withdrawal and inactivity, yet these behaviors are known to exacerbate a person’s depressed state. Such behaviors intensify an individual’s struggle because avoidance, withdrawal, and inactivity limit opportunities for positive reinforcement while simultaneously leading to additional secondary problems. Through my clinical work, my clients have found great success through establishing and maintaining a routine and opportunities for a sense of accomplishment are two fundamental components to pulling yourself out of that funk.

Behavioral activation is an empirically studied behavior therapy treatment for depression. This is often a stand-alone treatment for depression, but for the sake of this essay, I am going to illuminate the fundamental components of behavioral activation that can empower anyone to have a greater sense of empowerment when feeling in a funk. The goal of behavioral activation is to help individuals who are depressed re-engage in their day to day life. Additionally, withdrawing from one’s social life, avoiding responsibilities, and a lack of physical activity often leads to additional secondary problems which also exacerbate am individual’s depressed state. The alternative is to take action through the process of behavioral activation.

The goal of behavioral activation is to help individuals access natural sources of positive reinforcement in their lives. Positive reinforcement refers to the addition of a stimulus, following a behavior, that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. Many of our daily habits are the product of positive reinforcement. For example, you make money (addition of stimulus) following the completion of x hours of work (behavior) which makes it more likely that you will continue going to work in the future (behavior occurring again in the future). The key to positive reinforcement is that it increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again by adding a stimulus. Often times, the additive stimulus a pleasant one, otherwise why perform the behavior again in the future! When you hold the door for someone (behavior) and they smile and thank you in return (addition of a pleasurable stimulus) you’ll likely be motivated to hold the door for that person again. In this sense, understanding the process of positive reinforcement arms you with the tools to shape a new behavior. Very exciting! But easier said than done…

Research indicates that much of the behavior of depressed people is a response to experiencing low levels of positive reinforcement and high levels of avoidance and/or punishment. Additionally, such patterns of avoidance often limit a person’s opportunity or access to sources of positive reinforcement. For that reason, in the treatment of depression it is important to create and acknowledge opportunities for positive reinforcement. The first step is to target the avoidance behaviors that are getting in the way of opportunities for pleasant reinforcement. Perhaps you’re feeling kind of down and therefore don’t want to clean your apartment. Okay, that might feel good at first, but you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment.