Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

Why your goals decide whether you are calm and confident or anxious and/or depressed.

Why your goals decide whether you are calm and confident or anxious and/or depressed.

As you will notice from my previous couple of blogs here, here and here, goals are considered to be pretty important in the management and removal of anxiety, fear, depression and also in increasing confidence. In today's blog I want to have a look at the role of goals in anxiety reduction and how to use them to positive effect.

So why are goals so important when people have problems like anxiety, fear and depression?

One of the things you may have noticed if you have have suffered from high levels of anxiety or any level of depression is that largely ones goals disappear during an anxiety or depressive based episode. A lot of research has focussed on this phenomenon. Largely the findings of these studies have found that this loss of goal based focus contributes to and exacerbates the issue for the sufferer. The reason why a loss of goal based behaviour is such a big problem for suffered of anxiety and depression is that goal based focus tends to be existential. So if you are focussed on a project or task you are not focussed on internal feelings. Conversely if your focus and goals disappear then your world contracts to the internal, just at a time when the internal world is full of negative emotions and thought. This then is the start of the depressive or anxiety based spiral.

How can goals help?

Most therapies for anxiety and depression will include the incremental development of some form of goal-setting and action to help alleviate the disorder, basically the idea is to move the focus from internal emotions to external action, and provide meaningful activity. As the focus on goal based action increases the symptoms of anxiety and depression tend to decrease. There is ample research based evidence to underpin this assertion and as a result such strategies usually form some part at least in the management and alleviation of these disorders.

Will any goal do?

However as you will notice from previous blogs, not all goals are equal in helping, and indeed some goal based strategies can actually make the situation worse. Goals which increase personal and social competition, for example, can for some personality types, exacerbate anxiety and lead to depression. Goals which increase altruism and compassion for others generally have been shown to reduce anxiety, however there are exceptions to this.

As a general rule of thumb, any goal which gets you focussing on outside action will help, as long as it is not self-referential and competitive, or focussing on the negative affect of others, particularly in the area in which you are having problems. So if you are suffering from grief for example, helping other people who are grieving, could make your situation worse.

Find something something you are interested in and then find a way to help others in that thing. Set some goals around it so that you will get a sense of achievement when you are finished. The ideal is to set a big goal that is out of reach, then break it down into a series of smaller goals each of which is a step towards the big goal you have. Take it one step at a time. And remember anything is better than nothing.   

References

Ableson, J.L. etal (2014) Brief cognitive intervention can modulate neuroendocrine stress responses to the Trier Social Stress Test: Buffering effects of a compassionate goal orientation. Psychoneuroendocrinology Volume 44, June 2014, Pages 60–70

Alpers, G.W. (2010) Avoiding treatment failures in specific phobias in M.W. Otto, S.G. Hofmann (Eds.), Avoiding Treatment Failures in the Anxiety Disorders, Springer, New York, NY (2010), pp. 209–227

Craske et al., (2009) What is an anxiety disorder Depression and Anxiety, 26 (2009), pp. 1066–1085 http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/da.20633

Kashdan et al., (2008) Social anxiety and disinhibition: an analysis of curiosity and social rank appraisals, approach-avoidance conflicts, and disruptive risk-taking behaviour Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22 (2008), pp. 925–939 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.09.009

Pittig, A. et al (2014) The cost of fear: Avoidant decision making in a spider gambling task. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. March 2014, Vol. 28. Pp 326-334

Shidlovski, D., & Hassin, R. (2011). When Pooping Babies Become More Appealing: The Effects of Nonconscious Goal Pursuit on Experienced Emotions Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611417135 - See more at: http://www.fearcourse.com/?p=315&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=235#sthash.sKZoN2sf.dpufhttp://www.fearcourse.com/?p=315&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=235

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If you are avoiding doing something does setting a goal really help?

If you are avoiding doing something does setting a goal really help?

Are you avoiding doing something? Do you have a goal that you are not really moving on? Anxiety is more than likely the main reason why you are not achieving your goals, but does goal setting actually help?

One of the main criteria for the diagnosis of anxiety and anxiety related disorders is avoidance. Not only does anxiety and fear create the conditions where we avoid the thing we are anxious about but that avoidance is also part of the process of worsening the anxiety and keeping it at the heightened sensitivity levels that it tends to reach.

One of the problems with anxiety based avoidance, like a fear of failure for example, is that the individual often creates a psudo-logical rationale to explain and maintain the avoidance often whilst at the same time understanding that the fear is irrational.

What this means is that we can have (at least) two opposing rationales working at the same time. The psudo-rationale which explains why the fear exists and in effect validates the fear and the cognitive logical rationale which understands that the anxiety is irrational. At the same time we have a couple of systems, both the cognitive (thinking) and the emotional (pathological) which are driving the avoidance feelings and behaviour.

So what has this got to do with setting goals? Well we can set quite logical and rationale goals and even feel motivated to achieve them, however these intentions can be undermined by both conscious and unconscious anxiety based avoidance behaviour.

A number of recent studies in this area have focussed on the role of reward (and loss) in the achievement of goals, particularly in an environment where anxiety based avoidance is prevalent.

In effect the decision to actually pursue a goal involves a series of factors including:

  • the value or the importance of the goal relative to other goals and activities currently in action,
  • the level of anxiety based avoidance being experienced, either consciously or unconsciously, and
  • the worth to the individual of the reward likely to be obtained from achievement of the goal, and
  • the likelihood or probability of that reward being realised.

Now when you think about it, this whole scenario is about decision making. Do I decide to pursue this line of action or that? For example, do I write that report I keep meaning to write or just check Facebook first? They are all decisions. Unfortunately anxiety can significantly sway our decisions.

A study published this month looks at the issue of anxiety based avoidance versus reward in goal setting. What they found was that not only was anxiety based avoidance a strong and persistent factor in failure to achieve goals, people with such anxiety based avoidance made decisions that limited their success and gave them less advantageous outcomes in the long run, especially when compared to people without anxiety. What they found was that people who suffer from anxiety based avoidance tend to also to suffer from greater long-term costs and lower rewards than those without anxiety.

However there is some good news. The study found that repeated exposure to the decision making process inherent in focussing on a goal did slowly improve matters.

So if you want to write a book, for example and you keep putting it off, keeping the goal in mind and regularly and frequently facing that goal and most importantly having to keep making the decision to take action or not, should (eventually) help to break down the barriers to action.

The moral of this is keep your goals alive, keep facing them and eventually you will make more advantageous decisions. Either that or visit the Fear Course - it's much quicker!

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References

Alpers, G.W. (2010) Avoiding treatment failures in specific phobias in M.W. Otto, S.G. Hofmann (Eds.), Avoiding Treatment Failures in the Anxiety Disorders, Springer, New York, NY (2010), pp. 209–227

Craske et al., (2009) What is an anxiety disorder Depression and Anxiety, 26 (2009), pp. 1066–1085 http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/da.20633

Kashdan et al., (2008) Social anxiety and disinhibition: an analysis of curiosity and social rank appraisals, approach-avoidance conflicts, and disruptive risk-taking behaviour Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22 (2008), pp. 925–939 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.09.009

Pittig, A. et al (2014) The cost of fear: Avoidant decision making in a spider gambling task. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. March 2014, Vol. 28. Pp 326-334

 

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Having a goal can help stress and anxiety, but....

Having a goal can help stress and anxiety, but....

One of the areas researchers are examining in more detail at the moment in the area of anxiety, fear and stress management is that of the role of goals. There is a growing body of evidence that our goals, what we want to achieve and work towards, has a direct and lasting effect on our levels of anxiety and stress. Over the next few posts I will look at some of the latest research evidence about how changing your goals can make a marked impact on your levels of anxiety, fear, stress and even depression.

The first study I will look at was conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry, Seattle Pacific University, and Ohio State University.
This is a rather interesting neurological study looking at the pathway and process ( hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis) that produces cortisol, the stress hormone.

(For more information about cortisol and it's role with stress, anxiety and fear see my article here http://www.fearcourse.com/Th-link-between-anxiety-stress-and-cortisol.html).

As I mentioned, there is a growing body of research which is showing that having goals and a focus helps the alleviate stress, anxiety and even depression.

This study (to be published in June) looked at the ability of two different types of goal to reduce stress (cortisol levels) in 54 subjects.
The subjects had their cortisol levels tested before and after a stress induction process and then again after setting and working towards one of two different types of goal, or not working towards any goal (control group).
The first type of goal was for the subjects to promote themselves and do better than the other subjects in a series of tasks (a competitive self-serving goal).
The second goal was to help the other people (a compassionate, altruistic goal).

The cortisol/stress levels of the control group who didn't have any goal to work towards remained high after the stress induction and did not reduce.
The subjects who worked towards the competitive and self-serving goals actually saw their stress/cortisol levels increase.
However the subjects who were working on compassionate goals of helping someone else, saw significant drops in stress and cortisol levels.

Interestingly, the researchers then got the subjects who were following the competitive, self-serving goal to switch to a compassionate, altruistic goal, their increased stress levels went into reverse and fell significantly. The other subjects were asked to switch goals from their compassionate goal to a more competitive, self-serving goal and they had significant increases in stress.

So if you want to help yourself to reduce stress, help someone else. Helping yourself and competing against others just increases stress.

Do you listen to podcasts? I have just started a weekly podcast called David Wilkinson's Calm, composed & confident. It has a weekly round up of anxiety busting tips, the latest research, tools and techniques.

The podcast is free and available here via iTunes.

 

Reference
Ableson, J.L. etal (2014) Brief cognitive intervention can modulate neuroendocrine stress responses to the Trier Social Stress Test: Buffering effects of a compassionate goal orientation. Psychoneuroendocrinology Volume 44, June 2014, Pages 60–70

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