Sticking to Your Goals Can Ward Off Depression and Anxiety

"Giving up may offer temporary emotional relief but can increase the risk of setbacks as regret and disappointment set in," author of new study says.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 17, 2020

We’re all taught about the importance of having goals at any early age. Whether you’re working towards being full potty-trained or learning how to read, when you’re a child, there’s always another developmental milestone. As we grow up, we’re encouraged to continue creating and fulfilling goals: building successful careers, starting families and developing personal interests — and it benefits us in more ways than we realize: New research from the American Psychological Association suggests that making goals — and sticking to them — can help keep depression and anxiety at bay.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, kept track of 3,924  Americans over an 18-year period, collecting data three times: from 1995 to 1996, 2004 to 2005, and 2012 to 2013. The researchers found that those who stick with their goals (or at least get better at maintaining them over time) and who have a positive outlook appear to have less anxiety and depression, including fewer panic attacks.

“Perseverance cultivates a sense of purposefulness that can create resilience against or decrease current levels of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder,” Nur Hani Zainal, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Looking on the bright side of unfortunate events has the same effect because people feel that life is meaningful, understandable and manageable.”

The authors of the study point out that people living with anxiety and depression are often stuck in a cycle of negative thought patterns and behaviors that can make them feel worse. Their aim was to pinpoint coping strategies that might help reduce rates of anxiety and depression and hope their findings will help psychotherapists find new ways to bring relief to clients struggling with mental health issues.

“Clinicians can help their clients understand the vicious cycle caused by giving up on professional and personal aspirations. Giving up may offer temporary emotional relief but can increase the risk of setbacks as regret and disappointment set in,” said Zainal. “Boosting a patient’s optimism and resilience by committing to specific courses of actions to make dreams come to full fruition despite obstacles can generate more positive moods and a sense of purpose.”

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.


Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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