As we approach the end of January you may have noticed how all of the New Year’s resolutions that you and others set may not be sticking the way that you hoped. Unfortunately many resolutions focus on making big changes in short amounts of time that set us up for failure. In the end, we may often be stuck with the anxiety, self-criticism, and depression that caused us to start the resolution in the first place with the added layer of frustration that you were not able to meet your goals
Creating goals to support your mental health is a fantastic way to support your well-being, and it is something that you can do at any time. So as we continue on to 2022, and as the fad resolutions fade away, let’s look at an evidence-based approach that can help you make changes in your mental health habits that can last a lifetime.
Different from New Year’s resolutions that tend to be broad and vague, behavioral activation is an evidence based approach and coping skill for treating depression and PTSD that focuses on engaging in activities of enjoyment or mastery. Behavioral activation is based on the idea that the more we engage in pleasurable activities that align with our values the easier it becomes to break out of cycles of negative self-talk and low motivation. Here’s how it looks in practice:
Identify activities that you want to engage in over the next week. Notice if you find yourself leaning toward picking an activity that you should engage in (i.e. I should clean out my closet or I should write a journal entry every day) and, instead, pick an activity that you can remember making you feel accomplished, joyful, or content in the past. A major part of this step is acknowledging your values which will help to guide you toward identifying activities that you want. For example, if you know that making deeper connections with others is an important value in your life, choose an activity, such as having a coffee date with a friend or playing games with your family, that aligns with this value. This seemingly small step will help you to find motivation to engage in your identified habit, especially on days when anxiety or depression feel like they are getting in the way.
Once you have identified your value and the types of activities that you want to engage in, create a SMART goal related to this activity. A SMART goal is an approach to creating goals that breaks down the key parts of an activity that will help us to continue engaging in a new habit. SMART goals are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. Let’s use an example to illustrate a SMART goal in action.
Your goal for 2022 is to feel less depressed. What a great goal! But what does “feel less depressed” actually mean? Is it to have fewer days where you feel no motivation? Is it to feel more happy every morning? Let’s break this goal down into a SMART goal to create a plan you can actually follow.
First, we have to get Specific. “Feel less depressed” can mean any number of things, so let’s identify a specific activity or behavior that you know has helped you to feel a sense of joy or accomplishment. Think back to other times in your life where you may have felt depressed or anxious, and notice the things that you did that helped you to feel better during that period of time. Things like “spending more time outside” or “spending more time with loved ones” are common activities that help to improve mood. But they are still pretty broad! Getting more Specific would look like: going to the park, going to the beach, going on a coffee date with a friend, or having a family game night. These more Specific versions of helpful activities give you a clear behavior to aim toward increasing.
Next, let’s make our Specific activity Measurable. A common New Year’s Resolution pitfall is to say something like “I want to read more.” But what does more really mean? Is it once a day? Once a week? The more vague your language the harder it will be to keep track of whether you are meeting your goal and the more likely you are to feel discouraged even when you are engaging in the identified activity. Making your goal Measurable such as, “I will go to the park twice a week” or “I will have a family game night every Thursday”, helps you to keep consistent with your identified activity and also helps you to feel like you are actually meeting your goal.
After Measurable comes, Attainable. The goal of behavioral activation is to include activities in your life that disrupt the cycle of depression and anxiety. If you set an unattainable goal, such as “Get lunch/dinner with a different friend every day” or “Go to the beach every morning and evening” you will likely find that adding the activity in your life causes more stress than you were feeling before. Additionally, feeling like you are unable to meet an unattainable goal may contribute to more feelings of depression or anxiety. Picking an attainable goal like going to the park twice a week, because the park is 5 minutes away from your house, will help to make it easier to keep to your goal and feel a sense of accomplishment as you continue to engage in your desired activity.
Now that we’ve identified a goal that is Specific, Measurable, and Attainable, let’s check-in to make sure that this activity is actually Relevant to what you are trying to accomplish. If your overall goal is to “feel less depressed” check-in with whether the activity you identified will actually help you to feel more joy, mastery, or overall improved well-being. Like we discussed at the beginning of the article, make sure that your goal is not what you think should make you feel better. For example, choosing an activity because “everyone says that going to the park makes them feel less depressed so it should work for me too” may set you up for failure if going to the park has never been something that you enjoy. Similarly, if your goal is to “feel less anxious” maybe an additional social activity would add to your stress instead of helping. Ensuring that your identified activity is relevant to your overall goal will help to ensure that you are receiving the emotional feedback (i.e. feeling more joy or feeling less anxiety) that will help to keep you engaging in your goal.
Finally, let’s make the goal Time-Based. That means setting a specific amount of time for yourself, usually no longer than one month, to practice engaging in the activity or behavior consistently. Setting a specific amount of time to engage in your new behavior gives you a clear benchmark to celebrate once you’ve reached it. In contrast to New Year’s Resolutions which often dictate the behaviors you want for the next 365 days, a Time-Based goal is much more reinforcing and attainable (remember the paragraph above on the importance of your goal feeling attainable!). Additionally, creating a Time-Based goal also gives you the opportunity to check-in and assess whether the behavior is actually helpful to you. Maybe at the end of 30 days you really do feel less depressed! That’s great information to inform your goal for the next 30 days. Maybe you can increase the frequency of the activity or include a new related activity. Or, you may notice that after 30 days, you aren’t seeing the results that you had hoped for. You may still be feeling anxious or depressed, but now you have 30 days worth of data to help you shift your goal to better suit your needs. Checking-in after 30 days means that you haven’t spent 365 days engaging in activities that are not helping your mental health in the ways that you want.
Now that you’ve learned about Behavioral Activation and using the SMART goals framework to identify an activity and create a plan for engaging in a behavior that will help disrupt the cycle of anxiety and depression, take a moment to use this approach to identify a goal that makes sense for your life. What are you hoping to feel 30 days from now? What behavior may help you to feel this way? How do you make this behavior Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based?
If you have been feeling depressed or anxious for a very long time, it may feel very hard, or even impossible to get started on a new behavior. It may even feel hard to imagine that any new activity would actually help you feel better. It is important for you to know that it is possible to disrupt the cycle of depression, anxiety, and self-critical thoughts; both research and the experience of millions of Americans who experience a depressive episode or anxiety each year testify to this. But the process can be very hard and if you find yourself in need of additional support, therapy may be the right next step. If you notice that the cycle of anxiety or depression in your life continues to stick around even when you engage in activities that you love, or if you feel like you have no idea where to start when it comes to increasing meaningful or joyful activities in your life, therapy is a helpful place to learn more in a collaborative space with a mental health professional. If this sounds like something that would be helpful to you, feel free to schedule an appointment with me, Dr. Waite, or any of the other clinicians at the Integrated Care Clinic. Together we can help you to cultivate the activities in your life that help you to feel your best, mentally and emotionally.