Behavioral Activation for Depression (A brief guide)


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Page last updated: 21/10/2022

Behavioral Activation for Depression

In this guide, you will find a description of what behavioral activation for depression is, how it is used, benefits and some tips on how you can benefit from Behavioral Activation to treat depression.

Behavioral Activation: A simple Therapy 

Behavioral Activation (BA) is considered one of the most important cognitive-behavioral therapies used to treat depression making sense of how behaviors and feelings can influence each other.

This technique is designed for you to increase contact with possible rewarding activities by setting specific weekly goals and working towards achieving them.

These goals (short, medium and long-term life goals) need to be as specific as possible and consistent with the life you’d like to start living .

The rationale is that depression is a consequence of avoiding certain people, activities or situations.

Moreover, the National Institute for Health and Research (NICE) highly recommends behavioral activation for mild to moderate cases of depression.

The NIHR provided evidence about the effectiveness of Behavioral Activation.

In this large trial, they recruited over 400 adults that were suffering from depression and randomly divided them into two groups, one for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treatment and the other one for Behavioral Activation treatment.

Subsequently, they received therapy for a period of 16 weeks (up to 20 sessions) and after 12 months patients from both groups reported an important reduction in their depression symptoms.

The theoretical basis behind Behavioral Activation

Lewinsohn and Shaffer in 1971, established the theoretical underpinnings of behavioral activation.

They believed that depression had a behavioral issue that could be due to a lack of reinforcement, particularly in the context of social relationships.

Opposed to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), also proven to be highly effective, the interest of Behavioral Activation is not the negative thoughts (cognitive aspect) as it would be for CBT, the main focus would be to target observable behaviors.

How do I know if Behavioral Activation is for me?

This is actually a very good question, however, this is actually proven to be helpful for many people. 

If you would like to have some certainty answer the following questions:

  1. Do you have an idea of what might be triggering your anxiety?
  2. Do you ever find yourself doing things with little pleasure or no meaning?
  3. Do you find yourself feeling better at times and others you feel worse and you are not sure why?
  4. Do you find yourself battling with negative thoughts?
  5. Do you have a hard time finding meaning or enjoying things?

If you said “yes, I do”  to any of the previous questions then Behavioral Activation for Depression could be very helpful for you.

Behavioral Activation for Depression can help you understand how depression stops you from doing things that you would normally enjoy or give meaning to your life again.

This specific technique helps to break the “depression cycle”.

Additionally, there are some complementary approaches you could combine with behavioral activation (Veale, D. 2008) for better results and they are:

  1. Exercise and healthy eating
  2. Problem-solving therapy 
  3. Sleep management
  4.  Counseling 
  5. Family or couple therapy 
  6. Compassionate mind training 
  7. Acceptance and commitment therapy
Behavioral Activation for Depression (A brief guide)

Advantages of Behavioral Activation

Behavioral Activation is not the only available option for treating depression, however it is a simple and highly effective one. 

Simplicity is at the core of BA, this translates into faster results and low cost treatment.

Additionally, there are no side effects as it is the case of several medications used to treat the symptoms related to depression. 

Matthew Tull, a psychology professor at the University of Toledo mentioned 8 Useful Tips for using BA to treat Depression:

  1. Identify Activities that are uniquely important to you: the trick here is to identify activities that you want to do instead of what you should be doing, this will increase motivation and it will be easier to act on it.
  2. Make sure those activities are specific and easy to track their progress: for example, you can come up with the activity “organize my room”. This can be easily measured by determining if you accomplished it or not.
  3. Make a list of your activities (easiest to hardest): This will help you see quicker results and will keep you motivated.
  4. Try to come up with different and various activities across different areas of your life: this will basically avoid feeling bored and losing motivation.
  5. Enlist the Support of Others: it is important to ask other people for support. They might actually be able to help you accomplish those goals set at the beginning of the week.
  6. Try to be mindful: this means living in the present and not in the past so you can minimize feeling worried or stuck in the past.
  7. Try taking things slow: don’t be discouraged if it is not working at first, set reasonable goals and take it slow.
  8. Reward Your Progress: recognize your efforts and good work by rewarding yourself.

If you are ready to take the first step towards a better self then we also recommend reading the following manual.

Additionally, we advise seeking professional help if you feel depression symptoms are too overwhelming.

Smartphone Apps For Depression

In this new era of technology, everything is handled by phone, tablet or any other technological device.

This is why new apps have been designed to make your life easier and help you on the go!

Here are some of the apps recommended by the Society of Clinical psychology (American Psychological Association):

  • Moodivate (Dahne, Lejuez, & Kustanowitz), a self-help Brief Behavioral Activation mobile app.
  • ¡Aptívate! (Dahne, Lejuez, & Kustanowitz), a Spanish-language self-help Brief Behavioral Activation mobile app.
  • Behavioral Apptivation (Dahne, Lejuez, & Kustanowitz), a Brief BA mobile app that is intended to be used in conjunction with ongoing in-person Brief BA therapy (i.e., with a therapist). It consists of a mobile app for the patient and a website that therapists can use to track the patient’s progress through the treatment.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ’s) about Behavioral Activation for Depression

What does behavioral activation mean?

Behavioral activation or BA is considered as one of the existing third-generation therapies for depression treatment.

It based on a Skinnerian psychological model of behavior change, generally referred to as applied behavior analysis.

What is behavioral activation in CBT?

Behavioral activation is one of the many cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques whose main goal is to help individuals enhance their problem-solving skills and engage more often in activities that are meant to be enjoyable.

Is the Behavioural activation part of CBT?

Behavioral activation (BA) is part of CBT.

In this therapy, patients are encouraged to approach activities they may have been avoiding.

However, the main focus is not centered in analyzing thoughts but rather encouraging a significant increase in activity.

What are the Behavioural techniques?

Behavioral techniques are methods used to modify certain behaviors that are classed as dysfunctional or disruptive.

Some of them are desensitization, aversion or role-playing.

What is the behavioral activation system?

The behavioral activation system is one of the systems that motivate to increase certain behaviors implementing a reward system. 

Why is this blog about Behavioral Activation for depression important?

This blog about Behavioral Activation is important to provide a simple and effective option for people living with depression.

Here are the basic concepts of what Behavioral Activation is and how it can be used to treat depression.

Additionally, there are tools throughout this guide to help cope with depression and break the cycle.

Recommended reading

  1. Behavioral Activation with Adolescents: A Clinician’s Guide
  2. Rumination-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Depression
  3. Manage Your Mood: How to Use Behavioural Activation Techniques to Overcome Depression: Using Behavioural Activation Techniques to Overcome Depression (Overcoming Series)
  4. The Upward Spiral Workbook: A Practical Neuroscience Program for Reversing the Course of Depression
  5. CBT for Chronic Pain and Psychological Well-Being: A Skills Training Manual Integrating DBT, ACT, Behavioral Activation and Motivational Interviewing


National Institute for Health and Research

8 Tips for Using Behavioral Activation to treat Depression. By Matthew Tull, PhD.

Veale, D. (2008) Behavioral Activation for depression. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment.