Do This One Thing to Make a Change

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Imagine sitting in a park. Before you on the grass are several cups turned over. One of them has a surprise underneath it. All you have to do is turn over the cups to find the surprise. Would you do it or just sit and look at the cups? Now imagine the surprise is something that helps you make change. In fact, it will positively influence your mood.

That surprise is something called behavioral activation. You can’t actually see it under a cup. But if you turned over the cups, you used the skill. And that skill helps make change. Especially, if you find it hard to do things that you know would be helpful, but lack the motivation. For example, you know you should exercise more, but when you get home from work, you just don’t feel like it. But when you do what you don’t feel like doing, change happens. In other words, purposely schedule doing what you don’t want to do (exercise), and doing it, will actually motivate you to change.

Does this seem way too simple? It is because action precedes emotion. Action changes our brain state and makes us feel better. The more we do something that is difficult to do, the more positive experiences we produce. When we “get out there” and just do it, we feel better. So don’t wait for your brain to tell you to feel good first. Act!

Let’s talk another example. Say you lost your job. You feel sad, terrible, maybe even depressed. Then you stay in bed, watch TV and basically feel miserable. You avoid people because you are embarrassed. You don’t talk to your friends or return their texts. Your activity is all focused on feeling bad and being a victim. Now, write down: What action do you need to take to feel better? Which actions will lead to feeling worse, which ones will lead to feeling better? Some actions like prayer can lead to feeling better immediately. Other action take more effort.

When you think of actions, also consider your values. Which values do you hold and how will you stay true to those values? Often this means acting in specific ways. What are those actions? Write them down. For example, if you value relationships, what do you have to do to cultivate them? If you value relaxation, what activities lead to being relaxed? If you value physical and spiritual health, what behaviors go along with those values? Now, start doing one of those behaviors. Don’t wait until you feel ready. Just pick one and act. It may feel awkward at first. But the more you do an activity, the better you get at it and will eventually master it.

If you want to make change, identify the goal. The goal should be specific, something you could measure to see change, attainable, realistic and trackable. We call these SMART goals. Then, schedule an activity that fits you values and will help you reach that goal. Again, don’t wait to feel like doing it. Your internal state often tells you, “not now.” Work from the “outside in.” Act first and then you will feel better. And don’t give up in the process. Retraining your brain takes time. When you do act, reward yourself.

By the way, behavioral activation is especially helpful for people with depression. Depressed people stop doing and feel worse. So by making yourself do something regardless of your feeling, you activate the brain towards feeling better. Activity  grounded in your values improves your mood.

Begin today. Which activities improve your mood and are associated with feeling your best? Make a list of those activities that are consistent with your values. Choose one to get started-what it is, when do you plan to do it, and who might be involved? Finally, put that plan into action.  Try a small change and notice how you feel when you master it. Then increase the difficulty until you build more confidence.

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