Let’s Explore: Goal setting (for stress, mental & Chronic health issues)
Goals and intentions are probably not the first thing you would think of when it comes to stress, mental and chronic health management, but by not considering this as a tool for your ‘self-management toolbox’, you could be sorely missing out! And I figured out an amazing HACK!
A study conducted in Australia showed that “A robust factor in promoting mental health recovery and well-being is effective goal setting. There is strong evidence that working towards clearly defined goals that the person has set for themselves improves outcomes across a wide variety of illness states and therapy types.” (1)
With that in mind, here is what we’ll explore in this month’s blog: -What are goals? -What are intentions? -What is the differences between them? -How can goals help when managing stress, mental and chronic health issues -When not to set goals -How to set effective goals -How to adapt for mental and chronic health issues -The importance of accountability
What are goals and intentions?
Intentions are a mental state which represents a commitment to carry out a behaviour, action or attitude. They are emotionally connecting and are more present-focused in nature.
Goals, on the other hand, are a desired result or achievement. They usually involve strategies, measurements and targets, as well as deadlines. They are outcome and future focused.
Both goals and intentions bring focus and clarity, but to make it easier to grasp the differences, I’ve put their qualities into groups for comparison.
Externally focused (Doing) Measurable
Can be competitive
Internally focused (Being)
Tend to be more flowing and freer
Understanding the differences between goals and intentions can be really useful in order to select the most appropriate method for any given situation and/or mental state.
How can goal setting help stress, mental and chronic health issues?
Matt Haig, author of ‘Reasons to stay alive’, (whose work I am a big fan of) argues that; “Goals are the source of misery. An unattained goal causes pain but actually achieving it brings only brings brief satisfaction. In fact, if you really think about it a life made of goals is going to be disappointing. Yes it might propel you forward, keep you turning the pages of your existence, but ultimately it will leave you empty. Because even if you achieve your goals, what then?” (2)
Despite being completely contrary to my own opinion, I personally enjoyed that chapter a lot because it challenged my beliefs and opinions. It made me re-evaluate and reassess them, but ultimately, I landed back at the same conclusion as I before. I think Matt is missing a big trick here.
These are my reasons that goals help:
Purpose: Personal goals can give a focus, and even further than that they can give purpose. There is nothing like having a lack of direction and purpose to feed a depressive episode. ‘Purpose’ when it comes to dealing with mental health, can be lifesaving equipment!
Clear direction: Setting effective goals can give a clear direction, a metaphorical map if you like, of how to reach your chosen destination. Complete with clear markers and a definitive ‘arrived’ sign when you complete your goal. Goals keep you moving forward and prevent aimless, lost wondering.
Reduce overwhelm: Whether working on recovery, reducing stress, personal development or trying to get ahead at work, whatever you’ve set your sights on can feel exciting, but all too easily be replaced by overwhelm! Overwhelm is the dear friend of anxiety, procrastination and giving up. Goal setting takes a mountain and breaks it down into the steps needed to surmount it.
Motivation: Setting goals can actually motivate a person to action. Achieving goals or aspects of them causes a release of dopamine, which encourages us to continue to seek action and reward.
Accountability & Support: Goals allow us to clearly voice what we are trying to achieve or where we are aiming to get to, and how we are going to do it. That clarity makes it easier to get support from others.
People with mental and chronic health conditions need the above as much as, or perhaps more so, than anyone else. Studies done on the use of goal setting within therapy settings prove to have better patient retention (3), improve conditions such as depression (4) and increase happiness. (5)
Personally, I have used goal setting effectively in the management of depression, anxiety, OCDs and Fibromyalgia.
Matt argues that achieving a goal means you are ‘left empty’ but I have never found that to be true. In fact, the reverse (and that would make sense given what we know about dopamine.) There are always places to go, new things to explore and new heights to reach or simply helping you get back to where you where after a setback.
When not to set goals and what to do instead
All of the above said, there are times when goal setting is actually not helpful and can even be counter-productive but that does not mean setting goals is a bad thing to do, it just means we have to use this tool wisely and appropriately.
Inappropriate timing: This takes a certain level of self-awareness but basically, if you’re really unwell or life throws you a big curve ball, you need to deal with that first. Setting goals during big mental health flare ups or intense grief, for example, is not the best time. You’ll be less likely to achieve your set goals. As I said, this takes good self-awareness, knowing what you can manage and cope with.
Failure: There are times when you may well not hit a goal you set. Ideally, you would analyse why and move on, but I know, our brains are not always that logical and emotion is often closely tied into our goals. Again, this takes self-awareness but if you know your reaction to failure is overly negative, park goal setting for a while until you’re in a better place.
Anxiety increase: Goal setting can increase anxiety. (6) The harder the goal, the more potential for it. It may be worth keeping that in mind. Avoid goal setting for now if your anxiety is not well controlled or managed currently, or alternatively break your goals down into much smaller, manageable steps to prevent triggering it.
If setting a goal is going to lead to overwhelm: If you have more than enough on your plate at the moment or you’re already struggling to keep up in life, adding something else might not be a good idea.
If you are unable to set goals currently, it’s time to bring out the intentions. Remember, intentions are led by your feelings, they are not time-bound and focus on what you need more presently.
Let me give you an example to help illustrate this.
When I get depressed, everything feels like a mountain to climb. I have no will, no self-motivation, no energy and I struggle to do anything. So I make an intention to do the basics. Wash, eat, do one small household chore maybe. It’s in my mind for the day and more often than not, it helps me carry out those small activities. If I don’t manage it, it’s not accompanied by the sense of failure that having goals is. I just renew my intention and try again in the afternoon or the next day.
Intentions are the light touch to keep you mindful but without the pressure. Making them ideal for mental health/stress or chronic health challenges!
Setting effective goals and adapting for mental/physical health conditions
A lot of the negative aspects I mentioned in the previous section, can be managed or navigated by effective goal setting. This is usually done using the acronym SMART but I actually don’t think that really goes far enough for those of us who need a little bit more flexibility when it comes to health.
I ended up devising this for myself after working with a P.T who was lovely, but didn’t really understand or offer the flexibility needed, when working with my mental and physical health challenges that frequently meant goals were not met. Once I implimented this, I went from fearing goals, to thriving with them. So here is what I use:
S= Specific Your goal should be as clear, specific and detailed as possible, making it easy to know if you have met your goal or not. What are you going to do, how will you do it, with who and by when? This can usually be summed up in a sentence
Your goal should be able to be measured. (Otherwise how else will you know how you are progressing?) If you’re finding this tricky (and emotional measuring can be a little harder), speak to a coach or get someone to help you. (Or you can contact me.)
A=Attainable Are you able to attain this? It might well push you, but it should not be too far out of your reach. Do you have the right skills, the right support, enough time? How can you help yourself achieve this?
Evaluate your goal here.
Your goal should be realistic and worthwhile. Do you have the resources you need (For example money, tools, knowledge) and is it worth the time/risk/effort involved in reaching this goal?
T=Time-bound There should be a time limit on when you expect to have achieved you goal by, otherwise as the quotes say; “It’s not a goal, it’s just a dream.”…or something like that!
E=Emotionally connecting You should feel emotionally connected to your goal. It should inspire you, excite you, motivate you, maybe even scare you a little. If you’re not emotionally connected to your goal then chances are, it isn’t that important to you. If it isn’t important, it’s less likely you’ll remain motivated and succeed.
R=Relevant Your goal should be relevant to your life as it is now and help you get to go to where you want to be next. Goals for the sake of it, or just because someone else is doing it are less likely to be a success.
And here is for those that need the adaptations and flexibility. H=Honesty If you’ve worked really hard for a goal and have suffered a set back out of your control, it can be really hard to let go, but sometimes it’s important to.
If you are part way through a goal and struggling, be honest with yourself and re-evaluate. Here are some questions to ask yourself; Is this healthy for me to carry on with right now? Will it help me or hinder me to continue? Could I revise the goal? Equally, You must be really honest with yourself if you do choose to set down a goal. Is it because you really couldn’t do it, or because you are giving up? This takes huge amounts of self-awareness, self-honesty and sometimes bravery. There is no shame even if you are giving up. You can learn from a given up goal. You just weren’t ready…YET.
If you need to set your goal aside for now, acceptance is one of the best states you can master. It can be really crushing and cause a lot of negative emotions, a set-back in themselves. So the faster you are able to reach acceptance, the healthier and the better!
CK=Compassion & Kindness If you do have to release your goal for now, then bathe yourself (and anyone else involved in it) with a bucket load of the CK (Nooooo not Calvin Klein!) Compassion and kindness. There are all sorts of reasons why goals are not met. And ask yourself this; what GOOD comes of beating yourself up about it? Why put your energy into that? Be kind, be gentle, be forgiving. Rest, re-evaluate, pick yourself up when you can, and move forward.
The importance of accountability and support
One final thing on the subject of goal setting and it’s a powerful one! Find your support and accountability. Find it and use it well! Having someone (or something) to hold you accountable is a really valuable resource for being successful when it comes to achieving goals. So find a loved one, coach, support group or journal and go smash those goals!
If you’re stuck, you can always message me.
I really hope you’ve found value in this and if you have PLEASE let me know.
Love and light, Anna
#Growthforlife © Evolution Wellness 2020
(2) Matt Haig. (2016) Reasons to stay alive. Pages 231-237.
(3) Cairns, A.J., Kavanagh, D.J., Dark, F. et al. Goal setting improves retention in youth mental health: a cross-sectional analysis. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health 13, 31 (2019) doi:10.1186/s13034-019-0288-x
(4) Dickson, J. M., Moberly, N. J., O’Dea, C., & Field, M. (2016). Goal fluency, pessimism and disengagement in depression. PLOS ONE, 11(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166259