Comprehensive guide to Behavioral Activation (BA)

These days, more and more people are starting to withdraw from their family and friends while also losing any interest in their normal activities. This behavior is usually connected with depression or other mood disorders. Luckily, there are numerous treatment modalities available, and patients have access to the best online mental health counseling services regardless of where they live. As a distinct part of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), behavioral activation is a great way to overcome depression and similar mood disorders. But to get the most benefits from it, we need to understand what it is, how it works, as well as how to enhance it. And that is exactly what we will be focusing on in this article.

What is behavioral activation?

Behavioral activation (BA) is based on the theory that individuals who experience depression are going to isolate themselves. Over time, people suffering from depression start avoiding their friends and family members, as well as stopping partaking in any activities. BA’s treatment goal is to work with these individuals and increase their engagement in mood-improving activities. It also encourages patients to decrease their avoidance over time. That is behavioral activation in a nutshell. The whole idea behind BA is that it is possible to “activate” a positive mental state simply by practicing certain behaviors.

person kayaking
Behavioral activation looks to identify the things you enjoy doing the most.

However, this method also examines anything that might influence depression, such as eating habits and sleep routines. Also, by engaging in healthy, fulfilling, activities, patients will feel good about themselves. And that might make them want to engage in another similar activity later on. The “trick” is to identify and find activities that “work” for the patient. In fact, one of the main concepts of the best online CBT therapy for anxiety is to find positive activities for the patient. This is critical in making the treatment work, as even the most healthy and fulfilling activities might make someone feel unpleasant.

How does behavioral activation work?

BA is based on a branch of psychology called “behaviorism”. In a nutshell, behaviorism studies how our environment shapes our actions and, by extension, our mental health. The goal of behavioral activation is to provide the individual with a way to activate a positive emotional state by engaging in meaningful activities. The activities vary from person to person, however, and there is no “one size fits all” approach.

Additionally, the choice of a therapist is a very meaningful one, as your therapist needs to be able to motivate and assure you that you are going to be better. That is why most of the top CBT online therapy companies have numerous therapists on staff, so the patients can choose the best professional for their needs. Most therapists recommend BA for depression, but the modality is suitable for many other mood disorders. In other words, behavioral activation is perfectly suitable for someone that finds it hard to engage in pleasurable, meaningful, and fulfilling activities.

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BA works through three main principles:

  • Activity monitoring
  • Values
  • Activation
person making a spreadsheet for Behavioral Activation
You might want to create a spreadsheet.

It also has a “problem-solving” component. Throughout the therapy, patients may encounter barriers to activation which need to be solved as they appear. This component makes it so it is extremely important to recognize a bad therapist straight away. A good therapist will be able to find creative solutions and will adapt the therapy to the patient’s unique needs. A bad one will simply go “by the book”, which is never a good approach. That being said, there is a lot for the patient to do as well. The first principle of behavioral activation all but demands it.

Activity monitoring

Monitoring your activities and associated moods is essential to behavioral activation.  This will enable you to understand exactly how your particular brand of depression/mood disorder works. Activity monitoring can be done either through an activity monitoring worksheet, or you can simply make a note of your activities on your phone or write the activities down on a piece of paper. The important thing is to write down every activity, no matter how important or consequential it might seem.

You will also note how your mood changes throughout the day, in accordance with the activities that you partake in. Standard practice is to rate your mood on a scale of zero to ten, where zero represents extreme feelings of depression and ten represents feeling great.

Once you have gone through the activity monitoring for a period of no less than one week, your notes will provide you with a greater insight into the correlation between the activities and your mood. That is also the time to ask yourself some questions.

For example:

  • Which activities put you in the best mood?
  • Which activities put you in the worst mood?
  • How did being active correlate to your mood?

After that, you will compile another list, where you will list the activities that put you in a good/bad mood, respectively. This list will come in handy in a short while.


The second principle of behavioral activation has to do with values. A person’s value system reflects everything that they find meaningful in life, what they care about, and what is important to them. Every person has a unique set of values, one that also changes over time. However, it can be difficult to recognize them on your own, which is why many people choose to visit a professional therapist. One of the many advantages of online counseling is the fact that you can talk to a therapist without leaving the comfort and safety of your own home. You can get professional help without putting yourself in “harm’s way”.

plushy heart on a string
Every person has their own set of values.

You may also confuse values with goals, but they are distinctly different. Goals you can achieve but values are something that is unique to you. They represent directions that you might want to head toward. There is a huge difference between being good in your profession (value) and completing a specific project on time (goal). That said, every person has their own set of values that they find to be important. Someone can put a great emphasis on parenting while someone else values spirituality much more. It is all individual.

Behavioral activation prompts you to think about your specific values and how are you living your life in accordance with them. The next step is to write down all your values and rate them from 0 to 10, just as you did when doing activity monitoring.


The last step of behavioral activation is activation. It is what this treatment modality is all about. You may already understand that you need to get active but this is the time to take some meaningful steps towards it. The main principle here is that you can start being active even without feeling like it. With the information gathered in the previous two steps, it will be easier to create a unique activation plan that will also make you feel good.

How does it all work? You will start by creating some “activation targets”. Your monitoring worksheet will provide you with the activities that improve your mood, which is usually in line with your values. Make sure to include basic, necessary, targets such as doing laundry, preparing a meal, shopping for groceries, as well as partaking in at least a few social activities. Again, use your monitoring and values worksheets to get to the “best” activities.

You can also try to copy a list of activities that help most other people. While we are all unique, we do have striking similarities as well. Exercising, cleaning the house, taking a bath, listening to a piece of music that you like, and doing something “cool” for someone else are all great examples. If you are having difficulties, you may want to consider talking to a professional therapist. Even though therapy may be expensive, it is more than worth it in most cases. Always keep that in mind.

Activity hierarchy

Additionally, you will want to rank your activities according to difficulty. The fact of the matter is that depression is going to make it hard to enjoy any activity but some activities are easier to enjoy than others. Therefore, rank every activity with a number from 0 to 10, according to your perception of how difficult it might be for you to accomplish.

person studying
Some activities can be more difficult than others.

After that, it is time to schedule some of these activities. You may want to start with activities that have low difficulty levels. It is very important that you do not get overwhelmed at the start, as that is the most difficult part of the process. Once you start partaking in activities and getting your mood up, everything will get a bit easier.

To make things even easier, you will want to be specific about a few key points. Note the “What“, “When“, “Where“, and “Who” of each activity. What the activity is, when do you plan on doing it, where will it take place, and who will be joining you. The last step is to simply “go with the flow” and put your plan into action! This can be challenging, of course, but it is important to give it your all. Do not be dissuaded if you don’t manage to accomplish everything you have planned. Have pride in what you did manage to accomplish, instead!

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How to make behavioral activation even more effective

There are numerous little “tricks” that you can utilize to make behavioral activation more effective. The most important are:

  • Mindfulness
  • Support
  • Activity identification
  • Measurable progress
  • Taking things slowly
  • Rewards

Additionally, you do not want to start “firing on all cylinders” straight away. Consider your battle against depression to be a marathon instead of a sprint. Small steps and incremental improvements, that is the best way to succeed! With that in mind, you do have the tools to make the whole process just a bit easier.


You will want to try to be mindful of your avoidance behaviors even when you are partaking in a fun and fulfilling activity. This is perfectly normal but you need to be able to recognize it. By being mindful of your own thoughts, you will be able to fully engage in the activity of your choice.


people holding hands together, making Behavioral Activation easier
Everything is easier with some support.

Most of the time, people find it very difficult to become and stay motivated. But everything gets easier with some support from loved ones. What you might want to do is find a certain family member or a close friend and make a “contract” with them. Tell them about what you are trying to do and empower them to help you with it. They can be your coach, your cheerleader, your guide, or anything you need them to be.

Activity identification

Identifying “good” activities is the cornerstone of behavioral activation. However, some people mistake the concept of good activities with something that is important to other people and not them. Many patients think about what they should be doing instead of what they actually want to do. And that is a critical mistake that you do not want to make. The goal of behavioral activation is to identify the activities that will make you feel good, not activities that you think should make you feel good.

Measurable progress

Another great way to enhance behavioral activation is to find activities that are easily “measurable”. Meaning that you can figure out whether your task was accomplished or not in a relatively short amount of time. You can do that by being specific in your activities. For example, you do not want to make an activity that simply says “Exercise”, as that is too broad. Instead, you might want to note it down as “do X sets of pushups”. That way, you can easily know when your immediate goal is accomplished.

Taking things slowly

We can’t stress this enough, you want to take things slowly. At least at the initial stages of behavioral activation. Start with a few simple activities and work your way toward introducing more of them to your daily routine. Even a small number of activities can do wonders.


Lastly, make sure that you recognize what you’ve achieved. Reward yourself for making the effort, too. A good reward structure can increase your level of motivation and make it easier to engage in subsequent activities.

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Behavioral activation is an amazing way of dealing with depression, PTSD, and any other disorder that includes avoidance behavior. For the treatment to have maximum effect, however, you might want to consult a professional therapist. The best way to find all the top therapists and therapy networks is to explore the rest of the C0nsumer Opinion Guide. We are there to help you start and maintain your healing process. Good luck!

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