5 Ways to Help Patients With Anxiety Set New Year’s Resolutions

by Monica Parpal Stockbridge
December 27, 2022 at 11:15 AM UTC

5 ways to help people with anxiety make New Year's resolutions.

Clinical relevance: Patients with anxiety can make successful New Year’s resolutions

  • Since anxiety is forward looking, goals can be a good thing.
  • However, watch for negative goal side effects.
  • Approach-oriented resolutions may be less anxiety-producing.
  • Smaller goals on repeat can help manage anxiety.
  • Thinking about health oriented goals with the help of a support system, including a mental health clinician, is productive.

 

When you have anxiety, New Year resolutions can be a mixed bag. They might be the perfect jumpstart for goal setting. But… the pressure

Here’s how to help your patients with anxiety strike a balance and navigate the resolution season successfully.

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Consider the Upside

In a way, resolutions are right in the wheelhouse of someone who lives with anxiety, Jessi Gold, MD pointed out to Psychiatrist.com.

“People with anxiety are always looking toward

the future anyway,” said Gold, who is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University St Louis School of Medicine. ”With goal setting they can use that to their advantage if they approach it carefully.”

“As long as the objectives are concrete and manageable, resolutions might actually help ease anxiety by making them feel like they have more control over what’s coming,” she said. 

Manage Negative Side Effects

Make sure goal planning doesn’t spin out of control.

“We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation,” Harvard Business School behavioral scientists wrote in their aptly named paper, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.

Simply put, facing goals that feel unattainable can be stressful and heat up anxiety. In the extreme, the negative side effects may include degraded performance, a shift in focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm to interpersonal relationships, and the risk of motivating risky and unethical behaviors, the authors wrote. For some, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits, they argued.

So rather than offering patients goals “as an over-the-counter salve for boosting performance,” the researchers advised selectively prescribing goal setting, presenting it to the patient with a warning label, and closely monitoring progress. This is especially important guidance for patients with anxiety. They may worsen when they are pushed too hard.

Choose the Right Approach

Is the goal approach oriented or avoidance oriented? It can make all the difference, a PLOS One paper implied.

Results from the 2020 study indicated that, among the participants who set approach-oriented New Year resolutions, nearly 60 percent percent considered themselves successful compared with under 50 percent of participants who set avoidance-oriented resolutions. Moving toward something rather than away from something is often more motivating, the authors suggested. For example, stating you want to quit smoking for better health is approach oriented. Stating that you want to quit the habit to steer clear of poor medical outcomes is more about avoidance.

This makes sense to Harvard psychologist Jeff Brown, who is author of several books including The Winner’s Brain

“It’s natural for humans to move toward goals that are healthy and bring about self-improvement,” he said. For those with anxiety, framing a resolution in the positive can be especially helpful, he noted.

Think Small, Repeat

Brown recommended coming up with shorter term resolutions rather than extending out to a full year. This can be less overwhelming and creates a confidence booster in the midst of anxiety. Patients feel success sooner, he said.

“Consider modifying the length of a resolution to be a few weeks or a few months,” Brown suggested. “If the person reaches a goal in a shorter time frame, then they can always renew it again and keep it going.”

Gold agreed. “Smaller and doable is often less anxiety producing than something enormous. So even if you say, ‘start by committing to a few minutes a day for a few weeks,’ that can feel satisfying without being over the top.”

Focus on Health and Help

Resolutions that promote mental health should be on the radar for people dealing with anxiety, Brown said. A daily stroll, better sleep, less alcohol, and medication compliance are just a few of Brown’s suggestions. So is having more “in real life” versus online interaction. All of these goals can have a constructive influence on anxiety levels, he said. 

Make sure patients don’t feel like they have to go it alone, Brown added. They can ask for support from friends and family–and from their mental health clinician. 

“A therapist is a great resource for helping find just the right resolution, which is a balance between challenge and actual attainability” Brown said. “They can also help make the resolution objective and measurable as well as process the progress an individual is making.”

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