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.   


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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Research into the blindingly obvious...

Research into the blindingly obvious...

I get a lot of research about anxiety, emotion regulation and emotional resilience across my desk on a daily basis. Much of it is pretty specialist about specific neurochemicals or the effects of certain constituents of drugs on a particular symptom for example. Some of it is truly useful to my clients in a practical way and some of it like the last blog on Chocolate is just interesting. Now and then however you find a paper or a report of a paper that makes you shake your head and wonder why they bothered.

In a paper published today, entitled 'A person-by-situation approach to emotion regulation' researchers found that in certain contexts using of the skills of emotion regulation might actually be harmful.

The example one of the researchers uses is "...for someone experiencing trouble at work because of poor performance, for example, reappraisal might not be so adaptive. Reframing the situation to make it seem less negative may make that person less inclined to attempt to change the situation."

Basically what this is saying that if you use (misuse I would say) your emotion regulation skills to feel better about something you can and should be changing like being late for work, it could be psychologically harmful! Oh really? Yup using one of your skills to feel better about being late for work is quite likely to get you fired.

As I say on the Fear Course with a couple of the more powerful techniques I teach. Be sensible about what fears you kill with this technique. For example if you have a fear of standing on the edge of crumbling cliff tops, it might well be wise to allow that fear to remain.

As the researchers point out. Context is important. No sh*t Sherlock.

To be fair one of the researchers does point out "Adaptive emotion regulation likely involves the ability to use a wide variety of strategies in different contexts, rather than relying on just one strategy in all contexts."

Likely?? Pretty certain I would say. Having one technique for dealing with your emotions is like trying to refloat the titanic with the aid of a small sponge. 

Which is why we teach a whole tool kit of strategies and techniques to deal with fear and anxiety and increase confidence along with the tools required to make the decision about when to use them. 

Troy, A.S. Et Al (2013) A Person-by-Situation Approach to Emotion Regulation: Cognitive Reappraisal Can Either Help or Hurt, Depending on the Context. Psychological Science October 2013.


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When you think about it, you don't think about it. Until…

When you think about it, you don't think about it. Until…

When you think about it to successfully navigate day-to-day relationships at home and at work, we have to have pretty effective emotion regulation strategies. Imagine what would happen if we didn't regulate our emotions continually. Every minor annoyance, frustration and fancy would have us reacting in ways that would be completely socially unacceptable. We would become victims of our emotions, acting on the almost moment by moment variations in emotion we have have during the day.

From the moment we wake up, we regulate the swathe of emotions often without even being aware of it. Just going to work in the morning is a triumph of emotion regulation. The alarm goes off, I am sure there are likely to be other things you would rather be doing than getting up and going to work. The tooth paste has run out or you don't have time for breakfast when you would probably rather putting your feet up, reading the paper and having a leisurely breakfast.
Driving or taking public transport, again is an assault course of emotional obstacles. Even seeing something you fancy like a bar of chocolate or an attractive stranger and deciding not to just take them is another success of emotion regulation. It's an almost minute by minute task, and we rarely notice it happening.
Most of us are regulating our emotions continually, without thought and without effort.
For a short period today, just notice how much you are successfully and automatically regulating your emotions. You might be amazed.

The problem comes when our emotions move out of the everyday sphere of automatic regulatory control and they themselves take control of our behaviour on a more regular basis. When anxiety or anger for instance, expands across a boundary to become a feature rather than a background and unnoticed emotion, to start affecting our lives and often the lives of others then things can start to go wrong.

In the next series of blogs I will have a look at what happens when our emotions come to prominence and take hold. I will look at the six base emotions of Fear (obviously), Anger, Sadness, Hurt, Guilt and Attachment.


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