When people feel depressed, typically simple activities like getting out of bed in the morning can be challenging. Low energy is a common symptom of depression and can lead to avoiding everyday activities because they feel too daunting. Unfortunately, avoiding daily tasks often leads to feeling overwhelmed and guilty, both of which fuel depression.

It is not uncommon for people who are depressed to think they will resume activities when their moods improve and energy returns. However, waiting for these things to happen is not the most effective approach to tackling depression. It is, in fact, when people push themselves to participate in some of their usual tasks that their moods can improve.

In clinical terms, this process is known as behavioral activation, and there are two types I often share with clients: Activity scheduling and GRAPES.

1. Activity scheduling involves writing out a plan of events for the day ahead. These schedules can be broken down into 15-, 30-, or 60-minute windows and should cover all waking hours. Here is a partial list of possible activities to include in a schedule:

  • 7:30 to 8 a.m. – wake up, shower, get dressed
  • 8 to 8:30 a.m. – prepare and eat breakfast
  • 8:30 to 9 a.m. – clean up kitchen, take out trash
  • 9 to 9:30 a.m. – check email, make any phone calls
  • 9:30 to 10 a.m. – take a walk
  • 10 to 10:30 a.m. – journal

Creating and following such a schedule every day can provide a sense of accomplishment and a much-needed boost in energy. Sometimes people using this approach say that, at first, they feel like they are “going through the motions” and not necessarily enjoying the activities they have planned. That is okay. The purpose of this schedule is to get people out of bed and doing things. The pleasure of certain activities will return in time as mood improves.

2. GRAPES is an acronym that stands for:

  • Gentle With Self
  • Relaxation
  • Accomplishment
  • Pleasure
  • Exercise
  • Social

This technique was developed by staff in Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital’s Cognitive Therapy Program. Each day, people practicing GRAPES plan and complete one activity (or more if they wish) for each category. They can insert them into their activity schedules or simply list them and check them off as they go through the day.

GRAPES is a wonderful way to balance necessary tasks (accomplishments) with pleasurable ones. The activities for each category need not be elaborate. For instance, a social activity can include chatting with the grocery store clerk; an accomplishment can be scheduling a needed appointment; and exercise can be a five-minute walk. The key is to practice GRAPES regularly in order to notice the emotional benefits.

The “gentle with self” category means choosing to be kind and loving towards oneself, instead of being self-critical. Because people who are depressed tend to have more negative and critical thoughts, this practice of being gentle helps break that pattern. For example, if I am putting myself down for a mistake I made, I might choose to forgive myself or pay myself a compliment instead. Ideally, it is helpful to practice “gentle with self” throughout the day.

Both GRAPES and activity scheduling are powerful tools for reducing depression, increasing energy, and regaining a sense of control over one’s mood. I highly recommend them as good first steps and long-term strategies for dealing with depression.