Behavioural Activation Part 4 – Actions Speak Louder Than Thoughts and Emotions

Our feelings have evolved to hijack our attention, behaviour and motivational systems. At times this can be incredibly useful, even lifesaving. But there are times when the better-safe-than-sorry ‘smoke detectors’ in our brain produce feelings that drive behaviours that don’t help us! There is a level of sadness which can be useful in helping us to pause and reflect, to feel love and compassion or to appreciate the bitter-sweet flavours of our life’s banquet. But there is a level of sadness that pushes us into a numbness or painful states of depression that induce shutdown and social isolation. The pain can be unbearable, there are even common neural correlates in the brain between depression and pain. These agonising feelings can place real barriers to behavioural activation. Often, we need to do the opposite to what our feelings are telling us. We need to get up and exercise when our beds call soporifically to our exhaustion. We need to contact and connect with our friends when every impulse in us is saying to avoid them and retreat back to the cave. We have covered a number of useful tools for working with painful emotions in part 3 of this series, but here are two more ideas to put in the mix:

5. Fake it till you make it – as Mark Freeman says ‘focus on changing actions, not thoughts and feelings’. It’s much better to do your chosen BA actions focusing on what you are doing and trying as best as you can not to monitor how you feel. Excessive self-focus is a large part of the problem. Can you aim to have far more of your focus out on the world and the people you are with? You may very well feel awful when you first start BA, but can you improve your ability to function and concentrate whilst these difficult thoughts and feelings are in the background? Can that be your aim, rather than aiming to feel better?

It is likely it has taken months and years to build to this point of your depression. It might well take some time to break the patterns that led to it, so it’s far better to focus on achieving your goals and concentrating out into the world rather than whether or not you are feeling better. Do the activities you used to enjoy, or new activities that reflect your values even if you don’t feel like it. Having experienced depression, anxiety, depersonalisation and OCD myself, I know how difficult this is, but if we progress gradually then we can get better at changing actions with the heavy thoughts and feelings in the background.

6. Parallel emotions – Another useful concept that I found in the work of a number of expert’s (Mark Freeman ,Reid Wilson, Leslie Greenberg) is the concept that you can have emotions in parallel. There is space for depression and gratitude, anxiety and savouring. In fact, Greenberg (leading researcher and expert on Emotion Focused Therapy) has found that to transform painful emotions they need to be activated alongside positive emotions. Can you learn to accept or tolerate the emotion whilst your concentration is on something enjoyable or satisfying? We really can train this skill of concentrating on gratitude, savouring and flow even when our concentration feels weakened by depression. I found flow to be particularly useful here as we just need to (i) focus (ii) have goals with clear feedback, and (iii) have a balance between our skill and the challenge (not too easy or too hard).

The key is not to battle with our painful emotions. We can use different tools to help us tolerate and then accept our pain but we need to try and develop them alongside our pain, not to battle with it. You might also find my article the acceptance spectrum useful for ideas on managing challenging emotions.

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