Our actions can have a huge affect on our emotional well-being. One of the benefits of focusing on changing our behavior is that it is mostly directly under our control. If you want to raise your arm, it’s only a choice away. Although depression can sap our energy and motivation, it is still possible to make small behavioral changes that ultimately can lead to changes in our mood. Some of these benefits come from the activity itself (i.e., it is inherently pleasurable) and some comes from the fact that engaging in these actions engrosses our attention. Thus, the shift in attention can break us out of a cycle of negative thoughts.
So, when we are depressed, jogging 5 miles might seem like a herculean task, but a walk around the block can still provide some symptom relief without seeming too daunting. Similarly, going to coffee with a friend, playing golf, going for a swim, throwing the Frisbee to your dog are all actions that can induce feelings of pleasure while breaking the negative “spin cycle” of the brain. For people experiencing anxiety, doing some relaxed breathing, jogging, doing a crossword puzzle (or other activities that are similar to the activities that break us out of depression), can help reduce the feelings of anxiety. The root cause of depression and anxiety in practically every case is some form of negative spin cycle of thoughts that elicit related feelings.
A funny thing happens when we learn to change our behaviors to improve our mood: We learn that we can change our behavior to change our mood. In effect, one of the (often unconscious or implicit) beliefs that we hold that contributes to us feeling depressed is something like, “I cannot do anything to change how I feel. I’m stuck in this depression and can never get out.” In psychology, this is known as locus of control. There is much research that shows there is a strong connection about beliefs that we are helpless and depression. Dr. Martin Seligman called this “learned helplessness.” We come to believe that what we do doesn’t matter.
In effect, changing our behaviors can give us direct evidence to counter beliefs about helplessness such that we then develop an internal locus of control. Focusing on changing our actions to change our mood…and then our thoughts…supports the notion from Dr. William Glasser (of Choice Theory) that, “It is easier to act your way into a different way of thinking than to think our way into a different way of acting.”
Next post, I’ll cover more on changing our thinking. Until then, make sure you do something fun!