In my continuing series on habits, I now turn to habits to help you prevent and overcome depression. These habits are rooted in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Using CBT as a framework, in the following sections I will discuss behavioural habits followed by cognitive habits.
Behavioural habits: Behavioural activation
Behavioural activation as a treatment for depression entails getting back to doing behaviours and activities which have a positive effect on your mood. When someone is depressed, they often get away from doing these behaviours and activities.
The behaviours to target for activation include activities which bring pleasure, mastery and overcome avoidance. Pleasurable activities are enjoyable ones such as spending time with people you like being with and engaging in pleasurable interests such as listening to music, watching a movie or taking a relaxing bath.
Mastery activities provide a sense of accomplishment and are especially good for one’s self-esteem. Physical exercise is a mastery activity I encourage all my clients to pursue. Other mastery activities are hobbies and interests which the person intrinsically enjoys, finds stimulating and challenging or has talent at such as playing a musical instrument, working on cars, cooking, knitting or art. Overcoming avoidance involves getting tasks done which you may have avoided such as doing the laundry, cleaning the garage or doing your taxes.
The goal of behavioural activation is to get back to doing pleasure, mastery and overcoming avoidance activities and making them part of your routine. Scheduling such activities often makes it easier to achieve this goal.
Lack of motivation as an obstacle to behavioural activation and how to overcome it
A challenge in getting back to these mood-enhancing activities is that, when you are depressed, you lack the motivation to perform them. Therefore, it is good to have strategies to overcome this motivation barrier.
One such strategy is to use the five-minute rule. In this technique, when you are lacking motivation to engage in a mood-enhancing activity you agree to try the activity for only five minutes. At that point, you can choose to stop or continue. People typically find that once they have done the activity for five minutes, they want to continue because doing the activity even for five minutes has boosted their energy and motivation.
Cognitive habits: Change how you feel by changing the way you think
Depression is characterized by habits involving negative thinking referred to as the negative cognitive triad. This includes negative thoughts about oneself, one’s current life and one’s future. Cognitive habits help a person to change these negative thinking patterns.
Thought records are a key tool to help in this work. They involve tracking situations which lead a person to be depressed and identifying the negative ‘hot thoughts’ in these situations which drive the depressed mood. These hot thoughts are then evaluated with evidence and, in so doing, are typically determined to be beliefs which are either not true at all or not completely true. This then allows for a change from the negatively skewed hot thought to a more accurate and less negatively skewed balanced thought which reduces the intensity of the depressed mood. Practicing balanced thinking with thought records is an important cognitive skill found to be effective in preventing and alleviating depressive symptoms.
In cases of chronic depression, changing deeper levels of thought called negative core beliefs is often necessary to fully address the depressive symptoms. CBT skills such as core belief records can lead to progress in changing negative core beliefs and replacing them with positive alternative core beliefs.
You may find it helpful to receive some guidance in implementing these habits for preventing and overcoming depression by meeting with a psychologist who specializes in CBT. I help my clients in depression counselling learn and practice these and other skills in my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist.
May you think and behave your way out of depression,