Avoidance Goals Can Cause Anxiety

Avoidance goals

Take a couple of minutes to write down your goals. Are they positive like “pass the test,” or “do well on the speech” or are they more negative like “don’t fail the test,” or “don’t make a fool out of yourself during the speech”? The type of goals you hold can have a major impact on anxiety (and depression).


The Study:

Approach goals are goals where you’re moving toward or maintaining a positive end state. Avoidance goals, in contrast, involve moving away from undesirable end states. One study gave participants 75 seconds to write down as many approach and avoidance goals as they could each in 75 seconds. The researchers also tested each participant for anxiety and depression. They found that anxiety was associated with avoidance goals, but had no relationship with approach goals. Interestingly, depression was associated with a deficit of approach goals, but had no relationship with avoidance goals. While stress could be causing the generation of avoidance goals to some extent, another study found that avoidance goals predicted positive and negative affect (emotion) over time.

On top of anxiety, avoidance goals are associated with disorganization, avoidance of help, self-handicapping, low interest and low achievement.



It should be clear by now that approach goals are far healthier than avoidance goals. Here’s three things you can do: 1) Set more approach goals, 2) reframe avoidance goals into approach goals (turn don’t fail the test into pass the test or get an “A”),  3) drop any remaining avoidance goals. Doing this should make you less anxious, happier and more successful. Good luck!



Dickson, Joanne M., and Andrew K. MacLeod. “Approach and avoidance goals and plans: Their relationship to anxiety and depression.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 28.3 (2004): 415-432.

Elliot, Andrew J., Todd M. Thrash, and Kou Murayama. “A Longitudinal Analysis of Self‐Regulation and Well‐Being: Avoidance Personal Goals, Avoidance Coping, Stress Generation, and Subjective Well‐Being.” Journal of Personality 79.3 (2011): 643-674.

Senko, Corwin, Chris S. Hulleman, and Judith M. Harackiewicz. “Achievement goal theory at the crossroads: Old controversies, current challenges, and new directions.” Educational Psychologist 46.1 (2011): 26-47.


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