The Benefits of Behavioral Activation in Treating Depression

Behavioral activation is an effective method for escaping the vicious cycle of depression. What does it consist of? Find out here.
The Benefits of Behavioral Activation in Treating Depression

Last update: 28 December, 2022

We’re constantly bombarded by negative information. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the number of people suffering from depression is on the increase. In fact, The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified depression as an epidemic. Moreover, according to some prestigious experts, it’s probably the most prevalent mental disorder.

According to the WHO, in 2017, there were 300 million people in the world suffering from depression. This represents 4.4 percent of all human beings living on planet earth. The figures are disturbing and continue to grow year after year. Indeed, in the last 15 years, depression has increased by 18.4 percent. In addition, it’s a disorder that doesn’t discriminate between age, sex, social class, or race and can even be fatal.


Depression isn’t the same as sadness, no matter how much we may equate them in colloquial language. As a matter of fact, depression goes way beyond sadness. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) states that, for a diagnosis of depression to be made, at least five symptoms out of a total of nine must occur for a period of not less than two weeks. A diagnosis of depression is made when the following symptoms occur:

  • A markedly diminished interest or ability to feel pleasure in all or almost all activities.
  • A loss or significant increase in appetite and consequently, weight.
  • Not sleeping or sleeping a great deal (insomnia and hypersomnia, respectively).
  • Agitated or slowed behaviors.
  • Permanent fatigue or the feeling of a lack of energy.
  • Inappropriate feelings of excessive worthlessness or guilt.
  • Decreased ability to think or concentrate.
  • Recurring thoughts of death.

One of the great problems of depression is its recurrence. In psychology, recurrence is the reappearance of a depressive episode in an individual who’s recovered and has gone for more than two months without symptoms. In depression, the recurrence rate is extremely high. Moreover, the chronicity of the disease is frequently associated with personality disorders, intense anxiety, addictions, or psychotic traits.

Between 50-85 percent of the patients who have recovered present a relapse, representing an average of 75 percent (up to 30 percent in the first year)”.


Tired woman in bed
Early intervention in depression saves lives.

Behavioral activation

Doing the opposite of that dictated by depression takes a hugely titanic effort. However, it’s tremendously effective if it’s carried out under the supervision of expert professionals. In fact, treatment of depression from the behavioral activation (BA) approach has been shown to improve depressive symptoms on three battle fronts:

  • Activating the powerless individual.
  • Challenging the automatic thoughts that don’t allow them to move forward. For example, ” I’m useless”, “I shouldn’t be here”, or “There’s no point in me even getting up today”.
  • Modifying the beliefs that feed these thoughts.

Numerous studies have proven that the changes produced by BA last over time for periods of up to two years. In addition, the BA treatment approach assumes that the individual doesn’t actually suffer from depression, but is immersed in a depressive situation. This means they can take control of their actions, as well as their consequences.

Woman doing therapy
Behavioral activation therapy has been shown to be effective in depression.

Behavioral activation therapy

BA is a therapy structured in 15 individual sessions. It follows three steps:

  • To establish harmony between the individual and the therapist. Indeed, the therapeutic alliance is a key ingredient in any therapeutic process.
  • To analyze the individual’s daily activities in detail and observe how they’re related to their mood.
  • To find and apply new coping strategies and, before ending therapy, to review previous sessions to address relapse prevention.

BA is not so much about performing pleasant or pleasurable activities, but rather those that are valuable and don’t involve avoidance behaviors. In fact, those that have a real impact on improving depressive symptoms.

For example, going to the movies can be an avoidance behavior if the individual should be working. That’s because it’s only by working that they’re able to access those things that are valuable to them. As such, earning a salary allows them to be independent which could be the factor that gets them out of their depressive situation.

BA is based on the analysis of the function of the behaviors that the individual performs in a specific depressive situation. In psychology, it’s called functional behavior analysis. This method of therapy seeks acceptance and implementation of action plans that encourage the client to remain active, regardless of their mood.

An effective treatment

Multiple studies have demonstrated the effectiveness and versatility of BA. As a matter of fact, it’s emerged as the most effective and cheapest alternative to be employed in the area of public health. It’s effective in a multitude of populations (adolescents, different ethnic groups, rural populations, etc) and can even be applied online and accessed from smartphones.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

    • Fonseca Pedrero, E. (2021). Manual de tratamientos psicológicos (1.ª ed.). Pirámide. Pirámide
    • Álvarez, M. P. (2007). La activación conductual y la desmedicalización de la depresión. Papeles del psicólogo, 28(2), 97-110.
    • Barraca, J., & Pérez Álvarez, M. (2015). Activación Conductual para el tratamiento de la depresión. Editorial Síntesis.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.