How to engage with life when you feel down

Withdrawing from activities you enjoy is both a product and cause of low mood. Break the cycle with behavioural activation

When you feel low or fed up, it’s tempting to shut down and do very little. You might cancel activities and social events, and choose passive options instead, such as staying in bed or watching TV. It’s easy to understand why this happens: when you feel down or depressed, even simple tasks take a lot of effort and energy. It can also be distressing if things aren’t as enjoyable as they used to be.

Of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have had their activities and social events cancelled for them. For anyone experiencing depression or low mood, these restrictions will have compounded their desire to withdraw, and the prospect of coming out of lockdown might feel daunting. But, paradoxically, one of the most effective ways to improve a low mood is to do the very things you don’t feel like doing.

In 1973, the American behavioural psychologist Charles Ferster noticed that people who feel low tend to do less. In particular, they engage in fewer activities that bring them enjoyment or meaning. He argued that this drop in activity could be an important factor in understanding and treating depression. His observations provided the foundation for his behavioural model of depression, which still informs our understanding of the condition today.

According to behavioural approaches, depression is the result of a problematic cycle between reduced activity and low mood. The cycle begins when a person starts doing less, which means that they become more withdrawn and isolated. This, in turn, leads to fewer opportunities for positive experiences or distraction, exacerbating a person’s low mood. This makes the person even less motivated to try effortful, interesting activities, and the cycle continues.

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