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Behavioral activation

Behavioral activation is a third generation behavior therapy for treating depression. It is one of many functional analytic psychotherapies which are based on a Skinnerian psychological model of behavior change, generally referred to as applied behavior analysis. This area is also a part of what is called clinical behavior analysis (CBA) (see behavior therapy) and makes up one of the most effective practices in the professional practice of behavior analysis.


  • Theoretical underpinnings 1
  • Methods 2
  • Research support 3
  • Future direction 4
  • Other third generation behavior therapies 5
  • Professional organizations 6
  • References 7

Theoretical underpinnings

Behavioral activation emerged from a component analysis of cognitive behavioral therapy. This analysis found that any cognitive component added little to the overall treatment of depression.[1] The behavioral component had existed as a stand-alone treatment in the early work of Peter Lewinsohn[2] and thus a group of behaviorists decided that it might be more efficient to pursue a purer behavioral treatment for the disorder. The theory holds that not enough environmental reinforcement or too much environmental punishment can contribute to depression. The goal of the intervention is to increase environmental reinforcement and reduce punishment.

The theoretical underpinnings of behavioral activation[3][4] for depression is Charles Ferster's functional analysis of depression.[5][6] Ferster's basic model has been strengthened by further development in the study of reinforcement principles which led to the matching law and continuing theoretical advances in the possible functions of depression,[7] as well as a look at behavior analysis of child development in order to determine long-term patterns which may lead to dysthymia.


One behavioral activation (BA) approach to depression was as follows:[8] participants were asked to create a hierarchy of reinforcing activities which were then rank-ordered by difficulty; participants tracked their own goals along with clinicians who used a token economy to reinforce success in moving through the hierarchy of activities; participants were measured before and after by the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and a great effect on their depression was found as a result of their treatment. This was then compared to a control group who did not receive the same treatment. The results of those who received behavioral activation treatment were markedly superior to those of the persons in the control group. Multiple clinics have since piloted[9] and developed the treatment.[10]

Another behavioral activation approach utilized a different methodology: clients are asked to develop an understanding of relationship between actions and emotions, with actions being seen as the cause of emotions.[11] An hourly self-monitoring chart is created to track activities and the impact on the mood they create for a full week. A rating scale from 1 to 10 is used for each mood change per hour. The goal is to identify depression loops. A depression loop is when a temporary coping method increases the overall depression, such as the temporary relief provided by alcohol or other drugs, escape or avoidance or rumination.[12] When patterns of dysfunctional responding, or loops, are identified alternative coping responses are attempted to break the loop.[13] This method is described with the acronym "TRAP" (Trigger, Response, Avoidance Pattern [14]) which is to be replaced with a "TRAC" (Trigger, Response, Alternate Coping response). Particular attention is given to rumination, which is provided with its own acronym RCA (Rumination Cues Action.[15] Rumination is identified as a particularly common avoidance behavior which worsens mood. The client is to evaluate the rumination in terms of it having improved the thing being ruminated about, providing understanding, and its emotional effects on the client. Attending to experience is suggested as an alternative to rumination as well as other possible distracting or mood improving actions.[16]

The general program is described with the acronym ACTION (Assess behavior/mood, Choose alternate responses, Try out those alternate responses, Integrate these alternatives, Observe results and (Now) evaluate).[17] The goal being the understanding of the relationship between actions and emotional consequences and a systematic replacement of dysfunctional patterns with adaptive ones. Additionally, focus is given to quality sleep, and improving social functioning.[18]

Research support

A recent review of behavioral activation studies for depression found that it has a robust effect and that policy makers should consider it an effective treatment.[10] A large-scale treatment study found behavioral activation to be more effective than cognitive therapy and on a par with medication for treating depression.[19]

Recently, behavioral activation has been applied to anxiety and appears to give promising results.[20] One study found it to be effective with fibromyalgia-related pain anxiety.[21]

Future direction

Several proponents of behavior therapy believe that behavioral activation will have much to offer other areas such as post-traumatic stress disorder.[22]

Other third generation behavior therapies

Behavioral activation comes under the heading clinical behavior analysis or what is often termed third generation behavior therapy. Other behavior therapies are acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), as well as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP). Behavioral activation owes its basis to Charles Ferster's Functional Analysis of Depression (1973) which developed B.F. Skinner's idea of depression, within his analysis of motivation, as a lack of reinforcement.

Professional organizations

The Association for Behavior Analysis International has a special interest group for practitioner issues, behavioral counseling, and clinical behavior analysis. The association has larger special interest groups for behavioral medicine. It also serves as the core intellectual home for behavior analysts.[23][24] The Association for Behavior Analysis International sponsors two conferences/year—one in the U.S. and one international.

The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) also has an interest group in behavior analysis, which focuses on clinical behavior analysis.

Doctoral level behavior analysts who are psychologists belong to the American Psychological Association's division 25—Behavior analysis. APA offers a diplomate in behavioral psychology.


  1. ^ Jacobson, N.S.; Dobson, K.S.; Truax, P.A.; Addis, M.E.; Koerner, K.; Gollan, J.K.; Gortner, E. & Prince, S.E. (1996). "A component analysis of cognitive-behavioral treatment for depression.".  
  2. ^ Lewinsohn, P.M. (1975). The behavioral study and treatment of depression. In M. Hersen, R.M. Eisler, & P.M. Miller (Eds.), Progress in behavioral modification (Vol. 1, pp. 19–65). New York: Academic.
  3. ^ Jacobson, N.S.; Martell, C.R. & Dimidjian, S. (2001). Behavioral Activation for depression:Returning to contextual roots. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 8, 255–270
  4. ^ Martell, C.R.; Addis, M.E. & Jacobson, N.S. (2001). Depression in context: Strategies for guided action. New York: W. W. Norton.
  5. ^ Ferster, C.B. (1973). "A functional analysis of depression".  
  6. ^ Kanter, J.W.; Callaghan, G.M.; Landes, S.J.; Busch, A.M. & Brown, K.R. (2004). Behavior analytic conceptualization and treatment of depression: Traditional models and recent advances. The Behavior Analyst Today, 5, 255–274. [1]
  7. ^ Kanter, J.W.; Cautilli, J.D.; Busch, A.M. & Baruch, D.E. (2005). Toward a Comprehensive Functional Analysis of Depressive Behavior: Five Environmental Factors and a Possible Sixth and Seventh. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6(1), 65–81. [2]
  8. ^ Hopko, D.R.; Lejuez, C.W.; Lepage, J.P.; Hopko, S.D. & McNeil, D.W. (2004). "A Brief Behavioral Activation Treatment for Depression". Behavior Modification 27 (4): 458–469.  
  9. ^ Cullen, J.M.; Spates, C.R.; Pagoto, S. & Doran, N. (2006). Behavioral Activation Treatment for Major Depressive Disorder: A Pilot Investigation. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(1), 151–165. [3]
  10. ^ a b Spates, C.R.; Pagoto, S. & Kalata, A. (2006). A Qualitative And Quantitative Review of Behavioral Activation Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(4), 508–518 [4]
  11. ^ Addis, M.e.; Martell, C.M. (2004). Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time. p21
  12. ^ Addis, M.e.; Martell, C.M. (2004). Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time. Harbinger Publications ISBN 1-57224-367-8 p.37
  13. ^ Addis, M.e.; Martell, C.M. (2004). Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time. p39
  14. ^ Martell, C.R. Addis, M.E. and Jacobson, N.S. (2001). Depression in Context: Strategies for Guided Action. New York: W.W.Norton.
  15. ^ Addis, M.e.; Martell, C.M. (2004). Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time. Harbinger Publications ISBN 1-57224-367-8 p.97
  16. ^ Addis, M.e.; Martell, C.M. (2004). Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time. Harbinger Publications ISBN 1-57224-367-8 p.101
  17. ^ Addis, M.e.; Martell, C.M. (2004). Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time. Harbinger Publications ISBN 1-57224-367-8 p.74
  18. ^ Addis, M.e.; Martell, C.M. (2004). Overcoming Depression One Step At A Time. Harbinger Publications ISBN 1-57224-367-8 p.117
  19. ^ Dimidjian, S. et al. (2006). "Randomized Trial of Behavioral Activation, Cognitive Therapy, and Antidepressant Medication in the Acute Treatment of Adults With Major Depression".  
  20. ^ Hopko, D.R.; Robertson, S.M.C. & Lejuez, C.W. (2006). Behavioral Activation for Anxiety Disorders. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7(2), 212–224 BAO
  21. ^ Lundervold, D.A.; Talley, C. & Buermann, M. (2006). "Effect of Behavioral Activation Treatment on Fibromyalgia-Related Pain Anxiety and Cognition".  
  22. ^ Mulick, P.S.; Landes, S.J. & Kanter, J.W. (2005). Contextual Behavior Therapies in the Treatment of PTSD: A Review – IJBCT, 1(3), 223–229 [5]
  23. ^ Twyman, J.S. (2007). A new era of science and practice inbehavior analysis. Association for Behavior Analysis International: Newsletter, 30(3), 1–4.
  24. ^ Hassert, D.L.; Kelly, A.N.; Pritchard, J.K. & Cautilli, J.D. (2008). The Licensing of Behavior Analysts:Protecting the profession and the public. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention, 5(2), 8–19 BAO
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