Depression can make it feel impossible to do things. I was surprised by how quickly this technique shifted that mentality for me.
It’s no secret that certain things we do affect our mood more than others. For me, I noticed that the specific things I wasn’t doing worsened my depression and anxiety the most. I was caught in a cycle of consistently making excuses for myself as a way to avoid carrying out the simplest tasks.
One example of this cycle that comes to mind began when I moved into my current apartment building. The community is a beautiful cluster of old mill buildings owned by a large, diversified real estate group with amenities to boot; one being a clean, spacious, and fully-equipped gym.
You’d think this would be a dream, right? 24-hour access, no membership fee, and I can easily avoid the inclement New England weather that might otherwise be a deterrent. There have been some weeks when I’ve taken full advantage of the gym, but on many occasions, I’ve somehow managed to use any excuse in the book not to go. The result? Damaged self-esteem.
My internal dialogue typically unfolds as follows:
Me to me: We should really do a 15- to 20-minute workout today.
Me to me: Maybe, but I thought today we were going to do dishes and laundry.
Me to me: True! You are right.
Me to me on the following day when I’m feeling down in the dumps, groggy, and less than stoked about my physical appearance: Why couldn’t you get your lazy ass off the couch for a 15-minute workout yesterday? 15 short minutes! That’s all it would’ve been. Fifteen minutes out of your day to better your physical and emotional well-being. You also didn’t even do the laundry and dishes when, in reality, you could have done it all.
Sad me to mean me: You’re right. Let’s just wallow in this patheticness and watch “Sex and the City” for the twelfth time over. Leave those dirty dishes in the sink, girl — you filthy, flabby failure.
I could recognize the cause, the effect, and the impact on how it made me feel, but I didn’t have the gumption to do anything about it. I was stuck in the cycle. Stuck, that is, until I had an enlightening conversation with one of my best childhood friends over the holidays. She is in school working toward a PsyD in clinical psychology, and she introduced me to the practice of behavioral activation (BA).
My elementary understanding of BA is that it’s a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skill that helps us understand the connectivity between behaviors and emotions, e.g., why does doing (or not doing) this action make me feel this way? There are several different ways to use this technique, but it ultimately helps us work to activate the behaviors that make us feel good.
When I am in a depressive or anxious episode, I often become avoidant. That is common among individuals with generalized anxiety disorder or depression. The simple tasks of my day-to-day — making my bed, taking out the trash, washing dishes, moving my body — somehow grow in significance and become daunting. The molehill becomes a mountain.
In my discussion with my friend, I told her I was finding it difficult to get myself to the gym. She then posed the idea of starting with a 5-minute exercise rather than 15. In other words, telling myself I’ll complete a 5-minute incline walk on the treadmill would be easier to wrap my head around than the whopping 15 minutes. The process — I, of course, realized only after putting BA to work — is that when I could get myself to walk the 5 minutes, I would quite often find myself walking longer.
I feel the most important item to note is how effective and beneficial it is to start on a small scale, focusing on one thing at a time. Attempting to improve all areas of our lives concurrently is overwhelming. A full plate is tougher to balance.
I chose to focus first on getting my exercise routine back on track, knowing it would be great for both my physical and emotional health. However, once I began to notice my newfound willingness to work out, I noticed that same willingness trickling into more and more parts of my day. A routine formed naturally.
I found myself lunging at any opportunity I had to go to the gym, and on the days I could only manage a 5-minute walk, I still felt good about myself for getting there and doing something, no matter how small. Then, I’d get home and tell myself to start on the dishes. If I didn’t finish, it would be alright because I would have at least made a dent.
On certain mornings, I would wake up and suggest to myself that I should go send my first few emails of the day from the coworking space in the lobby. In turn, I’d feel more put together and productive after forcing myself to get out of the apartment for part of the day.
“Small and achievable” has become my cute little mantra while exploring behavioral activation. I urge anyone reading this to look into this technique and give it a try.
I fear I’ll sound cliche with this parting advice, but here goes: Start small. A healthy mental state is not a destination but a process. Be kind and patient with yourself, and find the courage to share your struggles because the shared human experience is one of the very best medicines, and you never know who has advice that can change your life.
Medically reviewed on March 01, 2023
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