Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling upbeat and energised, you are more likely to go out and do activities or accept invites from friends? Have you noticed that when you are doing lots of activities, you feel more energised and can do more tasks? Or the opposite, have you noticed that if you are feeling lethargic you tend to decline invites and normally enjoyable activities feel like a chore? Have you noticed that the less you do, the more fatigued you feel?
Well, you are not alone. In fact, this is a common experience where our behaviours can affect our mood, and our mood can affect our behaviours. When people experience symptoms of depression, they can often find it hard to experience joy or pleasure from activities they used to enjoy. As a result, many people with depression tend to stop doing those activities because it is too effortful and it feels like a chore. Likewise with anxiety, people will often avoid doing activities they previously enjoyed due to the tension and stress that is involved from the anxiety. The result is a vicious circle of withdrawing from activities due to lethargy and feeling more lethargic due to a lack of activities.
The power of doing things
One of the older techniques for treatment of depression was through what is known as 'behavioural activation'. Behavioural activation involves scheduling activities to achieve each day, with the rationale that over time, the participation in and completion of activities will change the person's mood. This technique is coupled with rating scales of a sense of achievement and pleasure, but the essential take-away is that consistently doing a combination of activities that you "have to do" and activities that you "like to do" helps to improve your mood over time. For people with depression, that can mean regaining a sense of pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed but had stopped participating in.
So, what about people who are not clinically depressed or anxious? Does behavioural activation help? Absolutely. If you are ever feeling stuck in a rut, chances are that you have fallen into a fairly monotonous routine and you feel like you just don't have the energy to go out and see your friends. It might not mean that you are depressed, but your mental health and well-being could be better. Let me give you an example - think of a time where you had an upcoming event that you were really looking forward to. For example, it might have been a close friend's birthday party, a concert, or going fishing with the family. Try and recall how you felt in the days immediately before the event. Were you looking forward to the activity? Do you recall feeling excited, maybe even talking with your friends about how much you were looking forward to the event? Now think about the day of the event. How did you feel leading up to the event or even travelling to the event? Chances are you were feeling really good, happy, excited and so on. Finally, think about after the activity or event. How did you feel once you had finished? Were you glad you participated or attended? My point here is that, even though you may not be feeling depressed, scheduling and engaging in activities regularly can help maintain a healthy mental well-being.
Now, let's consider feelings of anxiety or stress, particularly in regards to difficult tasks. Like most of us, you've probably put something off in your life because it was perceived to be too hard, only to complete it later and realise in fact it wasn't that bad. When we think about the power of doing things, completing a perceived hard task can be incredibly uplifting and improve your mental well-being. The best way to achieve a task that is perceived to be stressful, is to set a time and a date to complete the task. What's really important here is that the scheduled time is sacrosanct - that is, it cannot be delayed or deferred for other tasks. So, I would encourage you to pick a time and a date that you know you are unlikely to be interrupted. If you have an important phone call to make, scheduling it for 4:50pm is probably unwise and likely to result in the task not being achieved. So be realistic. Remember that once you've achieved the task, your mood will improve and you'll be glad that you followed through.
The power of doing - things you have to do and things you like to do
There are very few people in the world who truly enjoy chores. But I bet most of us feel good when we've completed our chores - our bedrooms are tidy, our dishes are done, the laundry is folded and put away etc. These are tasks that you "have" to do. In behavioural activation terms, these are mastery tasks, and they are just as important as pleasurable activities - the things you like to do. Again, setting a time and day to do mastery tasks can help us to feel better and improve our mental well-being when these tasks are achieved. There are certainly no feelings of guilt when you are engaging in a "like to do" task once you've knocked off a "have to do" task. If you can set yourself a goal to achieve one "have to" task and one "like to" task a day, after a few days you'll notice an improvement in your mental health and well-being. You'll feel more energetic, and more likely to accept invitations to participate in activities that perhaps you've been putting off.
When the power of doing is quite helping
Behavioural activation is often one of the key treatment principles I implement when treating a client with clinical depression. But behavioural activation on it's own may not be enough. I often couple behavioural activation with other techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. If you've been giving the power of doing things a go and haven't noted any major improvements in your mood, feel free to contact Grove Psychology or your doctor to discuss further.