Anxiety While Working Towards a Goal

When I imagined finishing grad school (which I did quite often during late nights of grad schooly work) I assumed I'd feel liberatingly unburdened, full of pride, free of stress, ready to revel in my achievement. And I did! After the graduation ceremony (*brag alert* at which I delivered a speech to a crowd of thousands--talk about anxiety and tackling fears of public speaking!), at a celebratory lunch, I promptly ordered a stiff Irish coffee and relished every boozy sip of it. I could finally relax (and stay awake through the rest of the day). 

But did this high last for long? No. Within a week I was stressed about taking my licensing exam and finding a job. I was certainly still proud of my achievement and continue to be, but functionally, day to day? I felt just as I had prior to graduation--wrapped up in looking ahead to the next thing. 

Why don't we feel a sustained high when we achieve a long-sought after goal? Why doesn't a big achievement unlock a new level of happiness? 

I talked about the hedonic treadmill as it relates to consumerism and spending in this post on mental health and finances, but the concept is useful to apply more generally when thinking about our overall happiness and goals. 

What is at the top of the mountain?...Another mountain.

We often imagine that an achievement will bring us some new level of contentment or ease that we do not have presently. There's nothing wrong with this expectation. It's how our brains work and this expectation helps keep us motivated. And to be fair, there are some achievements that truly do alleviate long-standing stress or shift our circumstances in a way that has a major impact on our overall lifestyle (e.g., paying off student loans, moving to a new city with lots of friends).

But for most of us, even the thrill of long-sought after changes or big achievements wears off eventually. We return to our set happiness point. We find new problems or goals to fixate on. 

Having an understanding of this mental tendency can alleviate some of the stress and worry that accompanies toiling away at a goal. 

So what are some ways to manage anxiety while working towards a goal (i.e., step off the hedonic treadmill)?


1. Practice acceptance of the moment as it is.

Ease into the circumstances as they are. That doesn't mean resigning yourself to worry or not working hard, but it means recognizing that our circumstances are constantly changing. Don't get tricked into thinking that when you reach your goal, you will somehow be a new person or indefinitely free of problems. 

2. Acknowledge over and over that it IS a process--and one that is likely to repeat itself.

Yes, your specific goal will likely come to fruition, but there will be more mountain tops of goals to reach and more valleys of hard work and waiting to slog through. When you find yourself daydreaming about how great it's going to feel when you accomplish your goal, remind yourself that there will most certainly be new goals that pop up next. 

3. Find ways to enjoy the process while you're in it.

Celebrate smaller goals along the way. Infuse your life with various sources of fulfillment that you can turn to when you find your focus has become too narrowly targeted on your goal.

4. Celebrate the big achievement when it happens (don't move on too quickly to the next thing).

Whether it's a well deserved drink and a celebration with loved ones or a weekend out of town or hey, a whole weekend of lazily watching Netflix and eating pizza (which I would argue is perfectly acceptable after years of working on certain goals), take the time to acknowledge that you worked really hard. Mark the achievement in some meaningful way. 

4. Work towards embracing uncertainty while in the process. 

When we're waiting for something to happen, our minds are very good at giving us doubt about whether that thing will really happen or suggesting all kinds of ways things could go wrong. Again, nothing wrong with that, just our anxious brains at work. Thank your brain for trying to help, call the worry exactly what it is (WORRY), and then lean into the uncertainty to fortify yourself against the doubt. 

5. Practice gratitude.

It won't make worry magically vanish, but like practicing acceptance of the moment as it is, checking in with yourself and taking stock of what you have right now and are thankful for can temporarily redirect your attention from future longing or uncertainty to present contentment.  

what are ways that you deal with anxiety when you're working towards a life goal?