Understanding the Behavioral Activation Processes of Depression

The behavioral activation system (BAS) has been studied extensively in literature related to psychological impairment. In the existing research on depression and negative affect, the BAS has been linked to higher levels of depression and an increased risk of depression and negative mood. The BAS is directly involved in how a person approaches specific behaviors, how they interpret rewards and risks, and their sensitivity to both. When the BAS is impaired, individuals may be less likely to perceive enjoyable activities as rewarding, and thus choose to avoid those activities. Although the evidence of this relationship is well established, the way in which BAS processes affect cognitive domains in those at risk for depression has not been fully examined.

To better understand how BAS affects cognitive abilities and self-appraisals in depression, Katharina Kircanski of Stanford University in California recently led a study comparing the BAS processes of 82 women with no history of depression (CTL) to those of 71 women with diagnosis of remitted major depression (RMD). The participants were exposed to a negative mood cue and then given a set of adjectives that included positive and negative descriptors. They were instructed to pick out words that offered self-descriptions and were later asked to recall the words.

Kircanski found that all the women with low BAS selected and remembered fewer positive adjectives, but this effect was especially pronounced in the women with RMD. Additionally, these women selected and remembered more negative descriptors than the CTL women.

Kircanski believes that experiencing previous episodes of depression, which the RMD women had, led to a decreased BAS and put them at risk for negative associations. This risk further increased their vulnerability to future episodes of depression. Interestingly, these findings persisted even when Kircanski controlled for other conditions, such as mood issues and anxiety.

In sum, the results here show that even though there may be a general negative bias linked to low BAS, it is clinically significant and potentially indicative of depressive symptoms in those with a history of depression. Therefore, it has clinical utility. Kircanski added, “The assessment of BAS sensitivity may help to identify individuals who could benefit from prevention or intervention efforts focused on enhancing positive cognitions, motivation and engagement.”

Kircanski, K., H. Mazur, and I. H. Gotlib. (2013). Behavioral activation system moderates self-referent processing following recovery from depression. Psychological Medicine 43.9 (2013): 1909-19. ProQuest. Web.

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  • Kathleen


    September 12th, 2013 at 3:44 AM

    This kind of info could potentially be very useful in helping address future incidences of depression in those who are the most clear;y at risk and the most vulnerable to this persisting throughout their lives.

  • nellie


    September 12th, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    so predicatble that women will always believe and remember the bad things that they think about themselves and never the good :(

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