Today’s Skill of the Month is a very useful skill for everyone but especially when you’re feeling down. I want to first point out that if you’re severely depressed, this is going to sound heartless and cold and like “Dr. Barlevy just doesn’t get it!” and let me assure you, I do. It will feel like what I’m suggesting is absolutely impossible.
One very important skill in both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as well as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is Build Positive Experience. We want to try to do one thing every day to make yourself feel competent and in control. It may be something that you’re good at or something that you just enjoy. It could also be something in which you are trying to build skills, so perhaps you’re not very good at it.
The short-term goal is to do pleasant things that are possible now. Let me take a moment to emphasize that are possible now. So, if you’re severely depressed, a huge thing like going to see a movie or calling a friend might not be possible now. You might have to do a very small thing like get out of bed, get dressed, or eat something. That might be all that is possible now. The reason I want you to do something pleasant is because this prompts positive emotions, which will combat the low feelings you’re experiencing right now.
In the long term, we want to make changes to our lives so that positive events will occur more often. To do this, I suggest creating a list of positive events that you enjoy and then decide that you’re going to do something from this list at some planned date in the future. So, I might have “take a vacation” on my list of positive events. I have planned to take a vacation at the end of April of this year. That allows me time to plan this trip and take steps so that I can actually do this when I planned. Don’t misunderstand me, though. The items on your list do NOT have to be giant, expensive things like “take a vacation”. In fact, you want only a few really big events like that on your list. You want to put very small things that you enjoy that are free or very low cost: “take a walk”, “pet the dog”, “make a batch of cookies”, etc. These are things that you could conceivably do right this minute without much planning at all. Nevertheless, I want you to plan to do these things. So, I really want you to decide this evening, after dinner, I’m going to sit down with the dogs for 10 minutes and really enjoy petting them and giving them lots of attention, for example. Another thing you can do is to plan a part of one of those bigger, more expensive items on your list. That, to me, counts as a positive experience for an evening or two once a week or so.
An important part of this skill is to “avoid avoiding”! Sometimes if you are prone to worry or experience feelings of anxiety, you might “spoil” your pleasant event by imagining everything that could go wrong and possibly talking yourself out of doing it at all. Instead, fully engage in the event and focus on the positive that is inherent in the event itself. There is something positive about it because if there weren’t, you wouldn’t have put it on your list!
Here is a re-cap of the steps of this skill:
1) Make a list of pleasant activities. Here is a sample activity list but use this only to get your ideas flowing. Some people really enjoy coloring an adult coloring book, others may find this tedious, boring, or hard on the eyes or hands. So make your own list that suits your own interests. Have items on your list that are short-term things like pet the dog, take a walk, watch the clouds, look at the moon, etc.; some medium-term things (things that take a bit of planning) like going to a movie, out with friends, or taking a drive, as well as some long-term things like take a vacation or plan a career change. Be sure to include things that you know you already enjoy as well as things that you’ve heard about and are interested in learning more about (to build mastery and keep things new and interesting!) Finally, be sure that you’re avoiding putting things on your list that are unhealthy (like drinking an excessive amount of alcohol, using drugs, or harming yourself or others). If you do not have problems with alcohol and enjoy drinking a glass of wine occasionally, that’s fine, but the goal here is not to encourage yourself to do something that you might find pleasurable but it is coming at the expense of your physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental health!
2) Plan to do something from your list every day. Plan to do the bigger, more involved things at some future date that you actually write down on a calendar and PLAN to do it.
3) Avoid Avoiding. Prior to the event, remind yourself about the positives that come from the activity (feeling joy, helping others, feeling useful, etc.) When the time comes to do what you’ve planned, whether it is a short-term item or not, think about how nice it will feel to do this activity. As you are engaged in the activity, FULLY engage in it, 100% to really enjoy it. If you notice your thoughts wandering to “I’m going to be sad when this is over” bring them back to “but right now I’m really enjoying this”. If your thoughts are going to “this is silly and I feel stupid” again, bring your thoughts back to the activity and really participating in it. This is a prescription for feeling better if it helps you to think of it that way. So, there’s no reason to feel silly for doing something that brings you pleasure as long as its safe and you’re not hurting anyone else.
4. Try to vary your choices of activities so not every day you're doing the same thing. For example, if you walk the dog every day, don't "count" that as your pleasurable activity every day. Push yourself to do something different.
Here is an example of a week during which this person did a variety of activities to give you an idea of what we're hoping to achieve. You can see that it is not that overwhelming, unless you're severely depressed, in which case your days may be filled with "easier" tasks until you begin to feel better.
I hope you’ll take that first step of creating a list for yourself. I recommend doing this on your computer so that you can revise it as needed, and continually add to it as new ideas come to you. Then, I really hope you do at least one pleasurable activity every day, starting today!