A recent study from the United Kingdom found a simple form of therapy called behavioural activation (BA) is as effective in treating depression as more complex psychological treatments and even medication.
So, how does BA work and what is the relationship between behaviour and emotions?
What we do affects how we feel and vice versa
Emotions are important sources of information that guide our behaviour and enable us to function as human beings.
Happiness and contentment, for example, are the emotional rewards we receive for engaging in valued activities that improve our quality of life. Anxiety helps us to avoid dangerous situations that threaten our survival. Guilt motivates us to act respectfully towards each other and helps to maintain functional social relationships.
Sadness lets us know when we’ve lost something important to us. As a severe and prolonged form of sadness, the loss in depression is of self-worth and hope.
Just as our emotions guide our behaviour, the opposite is also true – our behaviour directly impacts our emotions.
The more we avoid risky or challenging situations, the less confidence we have in our ability to cope and the more anxious we feel. The more we treat others disrespectfully, the more guilt and regret we feel. And the more we withdraw from people and activities that have previously given us a sense of purpose and wonder in the world, the less happiness and more depressed we feel.
People with depression derive a diminished sense of pleasure and achievement from life. At its worst, depression is the absence of emotions. Without emotions we are lost – nothing has meaning, which makes it difficult to care about ourselves and others. Just as few of us would turn up to work without a financial reward, it can be difficult to turn up for life without an emotional reward.
The problem is that when depression leads to inactivity, withdrawal and isolation, there are even fewer opportunities to derive pleasure or a sense of achievement from life. As a consequence, depression, hopelessness, lethargy and motivation worsen over time. At this point, the “vicious cycle of depression” is in full swing.
Whether depression (the emotion) or withdrawal (the behaviour) occurs first is a case of the chicken or the egg. It does not matter. The critical point is that modifying our behaviour can have a powerful influence over our emotions.
– Peter McEvoy