Depression is a debilitating condition for a lot of men. When men are dealing with depression, they often withdraw from daily life. They will generally feel unmotivated to do things that they routinely did in the past. They may stop connecting with people in their lives such as friends or family, and often end up just staying at home rather than going out doing things. Unfortunately, withdrawing from life by avoiding daily activities strengthens the cycle of depression, which leads to it worsening over time.
In my counselling practice, I have worked with a number of men struggling with depression. I have also seen a number of them experience freedom from depression. The key is to not let depression dictate what you do or don’t do. I often tell my clients that depression is like the best salesman you will ever meet – it knows exactly what to say to get you to do what it wants, which is typically to withdraw and isolate yourself.
Stated simply, when we are depressed, we become less active. The less active we are, the fewer opportunities there are for positive and rewarding things to happen to us. And the fewer positive or rewarding things that happen to us, the lower our mood sinks. Behavioural activation is one way to break out of this vicious cycle.
What is Behavioural Activation?
Behavioural activation is an exercise where people engage in activities that help them to move out of the cycle of depression and live a freer, fuller life. It is well-studied by researchers and the evidence shows that it is effective for treating depression.
There are three categories of activities you could choose from: pleasure, mastery, and connection. Pleasurable activities could include going for a walk, laying on the beach, or playing with a remote-control car. Mastery activities may include learning to play one of your favourite songs on the guitar or learning a new language. Connection activities could be asking a friend out for coffee or playing with your pet.
Five Tips for Behavioural Activation
1. Have the right mindset
Mindset is important for doing behavioural activation. Chances are, things will not always go according to plan, and you will get discouraged. Give yourself a lot of grace during this process. Perhaps you have a bad week and you miss that whole week of activities you planned. If this happens, just start again next week.
You can think of this exercise as kind of like starting a car engine that has not been turned on in a long time. You will try starting the engine and it will sputter at first. It may even take several attempts before the engine starts running. Maybe you start it and manage to get it going but then the engine dies again. Maybe you need to rev up the engine to keep the car going. You get the idea. Behavioural activation is like starting up the engine of your life, especially if you have been withdrawing for a while.
2. Start Easy
Behavioural activation is a simple and straightforward exercise to do, but not necessarily easy. For a lot of men with depression, even doing ordinary activities can seem really difficult. That is why it is important to start with activities that are easy. For instance, you could schedule a time to walk to the end of the street and back, or set aside five minutes every morning to try meditation. When you start with easy activities, it increases your likelihood of doing them. Then, you can gradually increase the difficulty.
3. Write Your Activities Down
Write a list of 5 to 10 activities on a sheet of paper. You can continue to add activities to your list as they come to mind. You can also seek inspiration for activity ideas on the internet. I would recommend avoiding activities that involve using digital devices. Most of us already use our devices frequently, and it tends to put us in a zombified state. The best activities provide feelings of pleasure, mastery, or connection either during and/or after the activity. Also, state your activities in a specific manner.  For instance, instead of writing down “get exercise”, write something like “walking to the end of the street and back at 5pm today”.
4. Schedule Your Activities
Once you have written down your activities, make time for them in your life. Place the activities in your calendar or day-timer. Ask yourself the question, “How likely is it that I will do this activity at this time?” Do not pack activities too tightly or schedule them too close to other commitments. You want ample time to do these activities. I recommend doing them earlier in the day as well, if possible.
5. Reflect on Your Activities
I highly recommend keeping a log or journal to record the activities you did and how you felt during and afterward. For instance, you may note that initially it was difficult to get yourself to do an activity; however, once you got started, you actually felt energised and your feelings of depression lifted. If an activity did not provide much pleasure, mastery, or connection, you may want to discard it and move on to the next one. It is also a great idea to have a person to regularly share your activities with, such as a friend or a therapist.
With these 5 tips, you can get started on your behavioural activation journey. You don’t have to let depression dictate what you do and how you live your life. No matter how you are feeling, you can always take action.