Mental Health Education,  Mental Health Resources for Families

Behavioral Activation: The Important Role of Fun in Mental Health Treatment

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You don’t usually hear the words “fun” and “Mental Health Treatment” in the same sentence.

And for good reason, mental health treatment is serious business.

But that’s exactly why we’re talking about the role of fun in recovering from a mental illness.

It’s a lot of hard work to change your life from the inside out. In order to keep going, you’re going to have to rest your mind frequently. And what better way to do that than by having a little fun?

*just a note here, there is a game embedded in this post that’s probably playing some adorable music right about now. Feel free to scroll down and hit the red mute button on the left side and/or give the game a whirl.

Why Do we Need Fun as Part of our Mental Health Treatment Plan?

There are a couple reasons why fun is so needed during recovery from a low spot in your mental illness.

The first we mentioned above. For any therapy to truly be effective, consistent mental work is required from the patient. Sometimes it’s reliving old hurts during talk therapy or facing your worst fears during Exposure Response Prevention Therapy. Other times the work means consistently practicing Cognitive Behavioral techniques to change core beliefs. Or it could be a mix of all of those things.

All that is pretty taxing and stressful on your mind. There are a lot of times I’ve left a therapy session feeling worse than when I went in (which is very normal). When that happened, having some fun self care afterwards kept me from falling apart.

The second reason we need fun as part of our mental health treatment plan is because mental illness is a thief of joy. Not only does mental illness exhaust us as we try to live through the symptoms, it also bio-chemically changes our brains.

Things you once enjoyed just don’t hit anymore. All you can focus on is how bad you feel, trying to manage your symptoms like juggling flaming chainsaws. The world seems bleak and hopeless.

Fun seems like the least important thing when you’re struggling to survive. But it’s actually a pretty good antidote to a severe mental illness. Doing things you really enjoy produces neurochemicals that your brain sorely needs like Serotonin and Dopamine. As part of a treatment plan, fun can be used to compliment medications like SSRIs. Producing chemicals that your meds can help you retain in order to feel better quicker.

What is Behavioral Activation?

During my Intensive Outpatient therapy for OCD at Roger’s Behavioral Health, we would regularly get homework from our counselors. I know, homework sounds NOT at all fun and most of it wasn’t. Exposure Response Prevention Therapy is no joke, it’s really hard. But because it was so difficult, my homework always included something called Behavioral Activation.

According to an article by Rogers BH themselves, Behavioral Activation is a theory and practice that challenges the isolation and avoidant behaviors those with severely expressed MH issues tend to get stuck in.

Generally my BA homework would be to have dinner with my family or do something I really loved but hadn’t allowed myself to do in a long time, like letting myself watch cartoons in bed. For others it would be to focus on building a new skill like painting or woodworking.

Take a Break! Play This Fun Game <3

Since this is a post about fun, why don’t you give it a try! Stop for a minute and enjoy this super cute platformer called Fox Story.

Having Fun on Purpose – How to Use Behavioral Activation

In essence, Behavioral Activation is a big word that means having fun.

But it’s also a lot more than that. It’s having fun on purpose.

You (or your therapist) should pick specific and measurable goals to work towards with BA. That’s because BA isn’t just a tool for recovery, it should also be an ongoing part of your mental health treatment plan. And you can use it to build a better emotional life for yourself by working towards goals that align with that goal.

For example, it was really important to me to have a great, functional relationship with my Mom. But the problem was, we didn’t get along at all. My mental illness and a lot of other factors blocked that relationship from developing. So my counselor assigned me Behavioral Activation work that focused on doing fun things that also helped get me ready to build a good family relationship.

So I found myself calling my mom just to chat, which I had never really done before. She was surprised and happy and we ended up having some really amazing conversations. To this day, chatting with my mom is one of my favorite things and our relationship is stronger than ever.

And that’s what makes Behavioral Activation such a powerful tool in mental health treatment. Not only does it help you move through tough times, it also helps you start living the life you’ve always dreamed of.

How do we fit fun Into our Mental Health Treatment Plan?

Now for the…fun part 😛 Pun intended!

Let’s take a look how we can fit fun into our mental health treatment plan.

  1. Check out this post on how to use Behavioral Activation by Verywell Mind
  2. Try doing something you haven’t done in a long time that once brought you joy.
  3. Try doing something you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t had the time or energy.
  4. Connect with others either online or in person – getting out of isolation is a key part of Behavioral Activation. Bonus points if you’re engaging others because of a fun mutual interest like video games.
  5. Speaking of video games, check out this list of soothing games like Hidden Folks and Stardew Valley
  6. Read out article on websites that are guaranteed to make you smile
  7. Practice some physical self care, even if you feel like it’s trivial just know it goes a long way to help your mood. Check out our guide on self care even when it’s difficult here.
  8. Make a little bit of progress towards an important life goal that might have been put on hold by mental illness.
  9. Get out into nature, it really does make a huge difference in your mood.
  10. Plan and track your Behavioral Activation with our Behavioral Activation Tracker worksheet (download below)!

Wrap Up

Now fun’s not just important during recovery. As we’ve seen with Behavioral Activation, fun is super useful. Even when we’re not actively working on our mental health.

Joy has an incredible effect on even the darkest of times. It’s a natural antidote to sadness. So it’s always important to add it in like sprinkles wherever you can. And I know sometimes that’s hard for people like us but every little bit you can get will help move you forward.

So get out there and have some fun darn it!

Much Love,

MB

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Mad as Hell Mental Health Rights Advocate. Likes margaritas, long walks on the beach, and JUSTICE.

5 Comments

  • Em

    Mental illness is definitely the thief of joy. Even the things you used to like to do seem not worth it, so why bother. This is a good answer to that question. And, I love the worksheets. I’m crap at filling them in, but I like to have them posted around to remind and inspire. Thanks for the post. 🙂

    • mmorran1

      You’re so welcome, I’m like that too with the worksheets and checklists lol! Just having them around is helpful. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Chloë Grande

    Wow, this post was so fun to read and a great message that I haven’t heard before! I have also left therapy sessions feeling somewhat tired and drained, so I loved your suggestions about incorporating elements of play. I’m going to take your suggestion to do something I’ve been wanting to do but haven’t made time for, which is scrapbooking/card making. It has a really nice calming and creative effect.

  • Andrea Arceneaux

    This was such an informative and helpful post. It never occurred to me that fun and managing mental illness could go hand in hand. I especially love the actionable tips to help incorporate fun into my treatment plan.

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