David Wilkinson

Banisher of fears, slayer of anxiety & developer of emotional resilience

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.   


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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