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.

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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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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