How to Set Resolutions — Without Setting Off Your Anxiety

Learn here for how to set New Year's intentions without setting off your anxiety.

Editor’s note: The writer is not a licensed therapist but has drawn these suggestions from her own experience and from expert sources as an aid to dealing with anxious thinking. If you might be suffering from anxiety, seek diagnosis and treatment from a professional.

With mounting pressures to be more and do more in the new year, setting resolutions can be daunting — especially for those of us who suffer from anxiety. While writing down a list of goals can be a dopamine hit, following through on them can challenge your anxiety, paving the way for doubts and fears to squash whatever plans you initially established. And as someone who suffers from anxiety, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to manage daily panic attacks while also attempting to make positive changes in the new year. 

My therapist once wrote a big “X” over the words what if on a piece of paper. Apparently, I had used the phrase what if so many times that she felt the need to physically show me how these two words were keeping me from moving toward any goals, let alone a single goal. Seeing this sheet of paper (which I still carry with me in my wallet), pinged something inside my brain — a simple phrase like what if was completely steering me off the course I wanted for my life.

Maybe you have a phrase in your life that needs a big “X” over it as well. Anxiety does not have to be synonymous with failure to grow. In fact, there are ways to use our worry brains as our super powers when it comes to establishing resolutions in the new year. Follow along as we share insights and tips for making 2023 a better and less anxiety-inducing year for you. 

Why it may be harder to set resolutions with anxiety

When we experience anxiety or an anxiety disorder, our fears and worries challenge us when it comes to making decisions. According to mental health writer, Natasha Tracy B.Sc, people with anxiety tend to avoid risks and focus on information that is more threat-related in nature. These tendencies can then hinder one’s ability to make resolutions about a future that may be filled with uncertainty or fears. 

That, however, does not mean those who suffer from anxiety have to steer clear of making resolutions — it may just look different in the ways these resolutions are established. Practice by listing a few goals you want to achieve this year, thinking about how you would like to respond to these goals versus how your anxiety may react to these goals. By looking ahead to how anxiety may try to sabotage your resolutions, you can work through those reactions, making it more likely to respond successfully to your goals. 

Pick a “theme” for the year

Focusing on a central theme is a great mantra to return to when things get difficult in the new year. A single word or phrase can help streamline your goals and remind you why you are putting in the hard work. Write down your theme, stick it on the refrigerator, place it in your planner, or wear it on a bracelet as a way to constantly weave this main idea into your story.

For me, a crossed out what if is a phrase that serves me consistently. I find when I spiral during a worry session, I can return to this phrase and remember that what ifs never help me as a growing individual. Your phrase should reflect you and where you want to be this year. 

Choose your goals based on your interests

Finding things that interest you are important when it comes to setting resolutions. My therapist was always a big proponent of utilizing enjoyment, like a hobby, as a way to direct my anxious energy towards something other than myself. She suggested painting or running, something to take my mind off of my everyday worries. At first, this idea felt frivolous because with three kids I clearly had more than enough to do during the day, but I tried her suggestion and found that this kind of activity did help mitigate some of my anxious feelings.

The same idea can be attributed to goal-setting because forming resolutions based on your interests will bring about a higher likelihood of follow through. Maybe you always wanted to write a book or learn to sew — having an interest in these activities may not only help to ease anxiety, but it can also increase confidence in certain areas of your life. 

Follow the BSQ Model

Dr. Kerry Mitchell Brown, writer at Very Well Mind, recommends the BSQ model for establishing resolutions, which means to think big, act small and move quickly. She explains that big goals can be difficult to achieve if you first don’t create more accessible goals that can be accomplished in a timely manner.

Setting a resolution to run a marathon may be a lofty goal if you have never actually ran a mile before. Following Brown’s suggestion, establishing a goal to run a mile by walking and running for a month is more attainable. Then, as you secure that goal, you can move on to create a bigger goal, such as running two miles. These goals will build upon each other, providing small wins that will grow into bigger successes while also limiting goal-induced anxiety. 

Set realistic goals or SMART goals

When it comes to creating intentions for the year, it’s important to be specific with your goals. The Very Well Mind explains that the SMART method — which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound goals —is a great tool to create concrete resolutions. With this method, those with anxiety will be able to visibly witness steady progress in small, measured ways.

For instance, if limiting screen time is the overarching goal, using the SMART method would help you achieve that goal in a distinct and practical process. Possibly turning your phone off for an hour every day and then working up to deleting social media apps on the weekends could be one way to achieve this goal. Small steps make big progress. 

Focus on what you can control (that may including saying “no”)

A core tenant of anxiety is the need to control the things that are out of our control. A simple practice when experiencing this kind of anxiety is to turn your attention towards what you can control versus what you can’t control. Easier said than done, but when it comes to setting goals for the new year, focusing on what you personally can control is key to creating long-lasting change in your life.

This may include saying “no” to those situations or relationships that cause a spike in your anxiety levels. And although you most likely can’t control these situations or relationships, you can control your response, which may look alot like the art of saying “no.” This could ultimately be your year to refine how and where you spend your energy, which in turn can help lessen the effects of anxiety in your life.

Establish accountability partners

When I first started attending therapy, I felt a little less alone talking with my therapist about my anxiety, and she in turn felt like an accountability partner helping me navigate the roads of anxiety. Whenever I tried to turn back to a road I had once visited, she reminded me to drive forwards and not backwards. This support was sincere and offered confidence in the times I needed it the most.

Support can come in many ways — from family, friends, or even your own therapist — but having an accountability partner is a great way to keep you motivated in your goals.

Setting resolutions this new year doesn’t have to feel like an exercise in futility, especially if you experience anxiety. Sometimes, just establishing goals around your own anxiety, ways to manage the stress and fears that come along with your panic, is enough of a resolution. Nonetheless, finding specific and practical ways to grow with a community of support is the best way to make this your you-year. 

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