Lift Your Mood and Resist Unhealthy Urges with Activity Scheduling
In our everyday life, we often wait until we are in the “right” mood to do something that we know will be good for us. “I don’t feel like exercising (or putting away laundry or working on my school project) right now,” we might say. “I’ll do it later when I’m in the mood.” But if it seems like you are never in the mood to do even the things you used to enjoy, like your favorite hobbies or talking with friends, you might be dealing with depression. In children and teens, depression is often expressed as irritability.
When we are depressed, our brain wants us to isolate and avoid in order to “protect” us from further distress. But as we avoid school, work, family, and friends, we also prevent ourselves from getting any mood-lifting positive reinforcement (e.g., praise from a teacher, a good test score, laughing with a friend). Additionally, we are more likely to have increased conflict with family or others around our perceived misbehavior or lack of interest. As such, isolation and avoidance is the exact opposite of what depressed people need. However, we can’t rely on our depressed brain to motivate us, so we have to “activate” ourselves instead.
Activity Scheduling, also known as Behavioral Activation, is an evidence-based cognitive-behavioral strategy that children, teens, and their parents can use to help lift their mood. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), we talk about how our behaviors affect our thoughts, which in turn affect our feelings. These three elements are interconnected, so often when people are feeling depressed, they find themselves doing very little that gives them a sense of pleasure or purpose in life. Sitting around by yourself, not doing things that are enjoyable or meaningful (and getting scolded by family or friends for perceived laziness and lack of motivation), can lead to negative thoughts such as “I’ll never be good at anything” or “No one cares about me.” These kind of thoughts about yourself, the world, and your future tend to make you feel worse and be even less motivated to accomplish tasks or be social. This is called a downward spiral. Activity Scheduling, on the other hand, can help to create upward spirals by purposefully scheduling pleasurable and meaningful activities, which in turn can lead to more helpful, balanced thoughts and a better mood.
Many people that struggle with mood also engage in unhealthy coping behaviors, such as binge-eating, self-harm, or substance use. If that is true of you, it is especially important to schedule activities for the times that are most risky. Use pleasurable and distracting activities to help you ride out the “urge” to engage in an unhealthy behavior. It is important to remember that urges are like waves. They don’t last forever, so if you can keep yourself distracted and away from temptation until the urge peaks and dissipates, you’ll be much less likely to engage in the unhealthy coping behavior.
What activities should you focus on increasing? In addition to setting goals for activities that you find pleasurable or that give you a sense of achievement, consider also your values. Think about what is meaningful or important to you. Is it your physical or emotional health, family relationships or friendships, education or personal growth, citizenship or community? Then translate those values into activities. You could schedule a walk around the neighborhood or lift weights for 10 minutes, listen to a guided imagery meditation on YouTube or take a bubble bath to relax, play a card game or cook dinner with your family, offer to help a friend with a problem, read a book or blog about the career you might want to have, volunteer at the local soup kitchen or write a letter to your senator.
Next, problem solve around potential barriers. What could get in your way? If that happened, what could you do to overcome it? Setting multiple cell phone timers, using post-it note reminders with positive affirmations (e.g., “Go for a walk at 4pm! You can do it!”), planning a special reward for after the activity, or doing the activity with a family member or friend who can hold you accountable are some great ways to overcome motivational barriers. Read more about common barriers to activity and how to overcome them here.
One additional barrier to doing activities with friends right now is the covid-19 crisis. Covid-19 increases the risk of developing depression and unhealthy coping behaviors because – to stop the virus from spreading – we must stay isolated and avoid socializing with anyone outside our immediate family. As you have read above, all this isolation is exactly what depressed brains DON’T need. But even during the pandemic, we can find ways to socialize safely, either outdoors with masks on or over one of the many video platforms that have become widespread this past year. And there are still many, many activities that we can do by ourselves that will help lift our mood. In fact, I challenge you to get out a pencil and paper and try to come up with at least 100 mood-lifting activities you can do right now both by yourself and safely with others. To turn it into a safe social activity, just try adding “online” after it and see if it works. You may be surprised by the possibilities!
If you are ready to give Activity Scheduling a try to lift your mood and distract yourself from unhealthy urges, follow the step-by-step guide below.
Activity Scheduling Guide
Use a blank Activity Schedule to record all of your activities over the next week. This includes all social engagements, school or work, and sleep. Even if you spend an hour lying in bed or staring at a fish tank, that’s an activity. Write it down in the time slot on the sheet. Adults and older teens can do time slots by the hour, younger teens and children can divide the day into morning, afternoon, and evening. (You can also just write each day’s activities down on a post-it note – whichever is easiest for you.)
As you complete each activity, give it a rating for Pleasure and Achievement on a 0 to 10 scale. For instance, I might give the activity “listening to a podcast” a Pleasure rating of 8 and an Achievement rating of 5. Some activities like “folding laundry” or “studying for a test” might rate higher in Achievement than Pleasure! Rate each activity as you go.
After one week of recording activities on your schedule, sit down and review it. You will notice that some of the activities you engaged in will have rated more highly than others in terms of Pleasure and Achievement. This is proof that some activities lift your mood more than others. You’ll want more of these!
Take a blank Activity Schedule and plan ahead for the next week by purposefully including the activities which created positive experiences for you last week. So, for example, “listening to a podcast” you might choose to do again two or three times over the next week. As such, you can write down this activity in your schedule to be completed on Monday and Wednesday at 7pm and Saturday at 2pm, for example. Repeat this process of choosing highly rated activities (>6 on either Pleasure or Achievement) from the previous week and scheduling them for the upcoming week.
In the beginning, just choose three or four activities to add so you don’t overwhelm or overcommit yourself. If you have certain times during the day that regularly tend to be “risky” for unhealthy behaviors like overeating or self-harm, schedule pleasant and distracting activities for these time slots especially.
Put your new schedule into action! Continue to rate each activity for Pleasure and Achievement and keep recording any other activities you engage in on your Activity Schedule. As much as is possible, try to stick to the plan, even if you don’t feel like it at the time. Remember, Action before Emotion, so don’t rely on your internal state to motivate.
At the end of the week, take some time to reflect on how doing these planned activities has made you feel. Did you notice your mood lift during the time spent doing these activities? If it did, then continue with this process: Plan, Do, Rate.
The more you get out there and do pleasurable, goal-oriented, or meaningful activities, the more opportunities for positive experiences you will have, and the better you will feel. Indeed, with each activity, you will be creating an upward spiral toward better health and coping.
Download your free Activity Schedule here: Activity Schedule.