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Ch-8: Rise Above Anxiety, Anger, and Depression

Mental Control Strategy 4: the LAPDS Goal/Expectation Change Methods

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter  8,  Part 5b, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
Go to book Contents   Go to chapter contents   Go to Strategy 5: GOALS  beginning  Go to Dr. Stevens' Homepage

How to adjust your emotional arousal like a thermost


     The 5 LAPDS goal change methods to lower overarousal (stress)

    (1) Lower goal and expectation LEVELS.    

    (2) Make ALTERNATE goals and plans 

    (3) Focus on PROCESS goals

    (4) Focus on DYNAMIC, GROWTH-ORIENTED goals 

    (5) Set SIMPLER, SMALL-STEP goals

    Systematic desensitization

MULTIPLE GOALS--Go for the Gold, but be prepared for the worst  


Following are five methods for adjusting goal challenge to increase or decrease emotional arousal. If you are overaroused or overchallenged, try using the methods in the first column. If you are underaroused or underchallenged, try using the methods in the second column. (See LAPDS table.)

In the sections below I will describe each of these five methods in more depth. First we will look at the five methods for reducing overarousal and increasing calmness. Then we will examine some methods for increasing arousal.

HF Model Diagram

What is the most common complaint of clients? Too much stress and anxiety. Think of anxiety as the emotional component of stress. Anxiety is a national problem affecting both mental and physical health.

Recall that harmonious functioning is caused by optimal challenge between a situation and the ability to cope with it. The root cause of overarousal emotions like anxiety and anger is that the challenge is too great. We feel overwhelmed (or scared) that we will not meet our basic goals or expectations. Therefore, adjusting our goals and expectations in ways that reduce the challenge help reduce anxiety.

The methods I am about to present are extremely effective for immediately reducing stress and anxiety--even when nothing can be done in your immediate environment. Clients feel much better within the course of an hour--the very first session! For these reasons, I am devoting more space to these five powerful methods for controlling stress by changing goals and expectations. Learn them well and practice them often!

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(1) Lower goal and expectation LEVELS. One way to reduce the challenge and anxiety is to lower our goals. The student I described who was crying over her first "C" grade lowered her expectations that "I always have to make an "A" in every class and finish college with a perfect 4.0 grade average." This gave her immediate relief.

Make MULTIPLE goal and expectation levels. This student decided that she still ideally wanted to make a 4.0 grade average. For her this was a realistic goal, since she was a senior with a perfect 4.0 for all her work so far. It was not necessary to change that goal as a preferred target goal.

The problem was more that she felt she "had" to make a 4.0. That was her minimal expectation for which she could be happy with herself. I sometimes call that our "bottom-line" or "minimal expectations" goal. It is often this type of goal which causes the most emotional upset.

She worked on setting a new minimal expectation for herself that was much more tolerant. Her bottom-line goal was to learn, get a degree, and get into the occupation she wanted. She also worked on appreciating how much she had already accomplished relative to those goals. Consequently, she was happier and no longer terrified at the thought of making a lower grade.

The link between too high expectations and depression. Overly high expectations is a common problem--especially among people suffering from depression. The reason people with too high expectations often get depressed is that when they perceive that they are failing, they tend to shut down--give up or withdraw. When that happens, they essentially reset their goals or expectations to very low levels and go rapidly from anxiety (an overarousal emotion) to depression (an underarousal emotion--often connected with "goal-lessness"--see later section).

If you set goals and expectations that are too high, you are setting yourself up for failure and depression. If you also tend to beat yourself up when you do not meet your goals, then that will exacerbate the depression and lower self-esteem even more. (See self-esteem chapter for more about self-acceptance.)

When you are feeling under too much stress or pressure, self-explore to see what your underlying goals and expectations are. Perhaps you need to lower their level--especially the level of your "bottom-line" goals.

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(2) Make ALTERNATE goals and plans to increase calmness. Developing alternate goals and plans is one of the most useful tools I have found for reducing anxiety. When we have no alternate goals (or plans) to get underlying values met, we face the "black hole" of the unknown.

A cosmic black hole is "dead star." It has tremendous energy--affecting everything around it. A cosmic black hole can even suck in neighboring stars larger than our sun. So it is with an emotional "black hole." It is a source of great emotional energy--usually anxiety. We work hard to avoid it, to cover it up, and to deal with its negative emotional effects. It is not only a powerful force in itself; it also interferes with many positive activities.

An emotional black hole is really a hole in our planning. For example, a pre-med student was suffering from very high anxiety. It was interfering with his studies, his relationship, and his whole life. His dream since childhood had been to be an M.D., yet he was scarred to death that he wouldn't ever get admitted to medical school.

I asked him what he would do if he didn't get admitted; and he replied, "I can't stand to even think about the possibility of not getting admitted--it's too awful to think about." He also said, "I don't want to think about the possibility of failure, because that kind of negative thinking might make failure more likely."

I believe the opposite was true--he needed to face his black hole, not avoid it. His black hole--no alternative plans or "mental structure"--was the cause of his anxiety. He needed alternate plans B, C, etc. to cover the real possibility that he might never be accepted into medical school. His black hole created so much anxiety that it not only made him miserable, but it also interfered with his studies and decreased his chances of getting into medical school.

To eliminate his black hole, he had to face the worst possible outcomes and develop acceptable alternative plans. Once he developed alternate career plans to cover almost any possibility, he felt much better and could study effectively again.

PRACTICE: Fill your black holes with well-thought-out, acceptable alternate plans to cover the worst possibilities. Systematically consider each important life area such as career, relationships, family, being alone, health, finances, and recreation. What are your greatest fears and anxieties? Face the worst possibilities--your black holes. Find acceptable alternative scenarios or plans that seem to cover all the bases. Develop not only Plan A, but Plan B, and some minimally acceptable "Survival plan." What makes an "acceptable alternative" acceptable is believing that it will meet your basic values and create at least a minimally happy life.

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Being "too attached" to one alternative causes "tunnel vision" and magnifies stress. I see many clients who have been rejected by their partner in a marriage or other primary relationship. A common problem is that the client feels as if they will never get over the loss of their partner. These clients often dream and fantasize about their ex-partner for months--even years--after the separation. The underlying problem behind this grief and fear is often that they have become "too attached" to their partner in several respects.

For example, 40-year-old woman client had initiated a breakup; but had been extremely anxious over this on-again, off-again relationship for about 2 years. She was "addicted" to him--constantly thinking and talking about her ex-partner and their relationship. She kept getting fantasies about her ex-partner even when she would date other men. She was desperate--she even moved to a different city just to forget him. What was the problem? Why couldn't she get mental control over her emotions?

She couldn't get mental control because she believed that he was the only man she could ever be happy with. In the many years she had dated he was the only one she had ever felt "so in love with." She also believed that she had to get married to be happy. In other words she had painted herself into a corner--her beliefs gave her no way out! She believed that her only route to happiness was to be in a relationship with this man.

Yet she had left him, because she was so unhappy when she was with him! Clearly, she was miserable with him and miserable without him. I told her that as long as she believed he was her only route to happiness, she would continue to be miserable. The only solution to her problem was to realize that she had many other potential routes to a happy life. She could be happy--even happier--with another man. And even more importantly, she could learn to be a happy person living alone.

What was going on here? Let's look at this from a different perspective. There were many subparts of that were in conflict. One part did want a happy relationship and good sexual relationship. That part kept producing fantasies--including highly sexual ones. Since most recent and positive sexual experiences had been with her former partner, the mind produced fantasies with him as the male partner. From these persistent fantasies my client concluded that some part of her was so attached to her former partner that she could never let go. She concluded that she could never get interested in another man.

We needed to reduce her attachment. We looked at this assumption that she could only be happy and sexually satisfied with him. This fantasizing was very normal behavior. Many who end a relationship continue to fantasize about their ex-partners. Our brain will often keep fantasizing about a past "object" until it finds a new one that meets the same values and desires. I told her the story of how men in a starvation experiment constantly dreamed, fantasized, thought, and talked of food.

She could find a new alternative goal by fantasizing about other men--even movie stars or an "imaginary" future partner. She began to realize that she was not so attached to her former partner as to her values for sex and companionship in general.

Her new realization was that her general underlying values were more important than any one route to getting them satisfied. Thus, she made her primary goal getting those underlying values satisfied. Who the particular man she might be happy with was secondary. She began to consciously say to herself that what she really wanted was "good sex and a good man"--not her former partner.

This insight helped free her of her obsessive thoughts and attachment for her ex-partner. Reminding herself of the unpleasant experiences causing her to leave him in the first place also helped her quit thinking about him. She also learned new ways to "make herself happy" alone or with others.

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(3) Focus on PROCESS goals to increase calmness. What is the difference between the first and second types of goals in each of the following pairs? Would you feel more confident about achieving the first goal or the second in each pair?
  • Doing my best vs. Winning  Interviewing for a job vs. Getting a job
  • Being friendly vs. Being liked  Working hard vs. Getting promoted
  • Studying hard vs. High grades  Focusing on the ball vs. Hitting a home run
  • Enjoying a game vs. Winning it  Making the pitch vs. Making the sale
  • Competence vs. Career success  Studying hard vs. Making high grades

The first items are process goals and the second are outcome goals. Notice how much more control we have of process goals than outcome goals. Process goals are goals about what we think or do as opposed to what happens outside us or what happens as a result of our actions.(4) External outcome goals are goals about changes in our environment which we hope will take place as a result of our actions.

We have a high degree of control over our thoughts and behavior. However, we do not have total control over the external environment. Each external event is a multicaused event. We may control some--but never all--of those causes. We cannot control what other people do, what nature does, what the economy does, or what the government does. We can only take actions that might result in the intended outcomes.

The more an important goal is beyond our control, the greater the challenge (and therefore, the greater the arousal level). Whenever we choose a primary goal that is too far out of our control, we immediately create excess anxiety. Thus, whenever you choose an outcome goal as a primary goal, be aware that you are probably increasing the pressure you put on yourself. At times, you may want that increased pressure as a motivator to get you off your duff. However, at other times, you may already have too much pressure and want to reduce the pressure. That is how you turn up your arousal thermostat or turn it down.

For example, I have worked with many students who were "shy" about meeting new people--especially people of the opposite sex. Many of these students lacked experience and some of the social skills needed to be very successful. These students had to go through an initial period where their chances of getting negative reactions was high.

However, the type of goals and expectations they set make a critical difference between feeling good about the experience of meeting people--or giving up. If they set an outcome goal such as "getting a date," they immediately feet anxious. The anxiety often causes them to become tongue-tied or overtly nervous--making them appear awkward and unconfident. In addition, they often get very discouraged after being rejected. They feel anxious because their goals were outcome goals over which they had little control and had little chance of meeting. Instead, they can reduce their nervousness (and increase their confidence) by focusing upon process goals--which they can control.

I encourage these clients to set goals for their own behavior--such as "meeting and talking with a new person," "self-disclosing personal information," or "using a reflective listening method to get more personal." They focus on goals like "enjoying the experience" and "learning from it--so I will be better in the future." Focusing on process goals increases their calmness and confidence.

Process goals can increase the person's chances of performing "in the zone" when they are feeling too anxious. Process goals can be especially useful in situations where the realistic chances of meeting the outcome goals are not very high. Reaching difficult and remote goals usually requires a great deal of motivation, energy, and work. Goals like making habit or personality changes, completing a major project, writing a book, starting a business, becoming a professional artist or athlete, or getting a college degree require an enormous amount of work.

To be successful reaching these difficult goals requires positive reinforcement along the path. Few people can persist indefinitely without some feeling of success. Reaching process goals and intermediate outcome goals provide the reinforcement we need to keep persisting. Keeping ourselves in the zone (happier) helps us persist.

Good managers can also use process goals with the members of their "team" very effectively--especially if team members think the outcomes are out of their control.

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I will not take responsibility for any factor over which I do not have control. I will try to "let go" of a sense of responsibility for those factors or events which I cannot control. Therefore I will choose as my primary and immediate goals the thoughts and actions I can control. These are process goals. Try using them more--especially when you have less control over the outcomes.

The Process-Outcome Cycle. Although we cannot completely control any external outcomes, we can influence many of them. If we follow the "responsibility follows control" rule, then we will take responsibility for outcomes to the degree that we can influence those outcomes.

Tennis is often a good metaphor for the game of life. As in life, I can only directly control what I think, where I focus my attention, and my actions. I have a lot of control over where the ball goes after I hit it but not total control. I have little control over what my opponent or the wind does to the ball. Therefore, I can only partially control the outcome of the tennis match. My overall process goal is to play the best tennis I can. My overall outcome goal might be to win the match. I will adjust my outcome goal to the level of my opponent so that it is a challenging goal.

However, my process goals are not completely independent of my outcome goals. I choose the process goals (means) with the greatest chance of obtaining the desired outcomes(ends). If my purpose is to win a tennis match, I will try to choose a winning strategy. I might choose to "serve and volley." Once I choose that strategy, I focus on serving and volleying as well as I can and forget the score.

Alternate between focusing on process and outcomes. After trying that strategy for a while, I stop and evaluate it to see if it is helping me win. If not, I may pick a different strategy--such as "staying back and hitting from the baseline." I use feedback from how well I met the outcome goals to help select the next process goals.

When I get involved in the process, I focus on the process goal as if I didn't care about the outcome. Focusing on the ball maximizes my chances for getting in the zone and winning. Even if I lose the match, there are still many benefits from being in the zone: I still enjoy playing, I am still learning, I am still doing something healthy for my body, and I am still spending my time feeling happy.

Periodically focusing on the outcomes for direction, and focusing on the process the rest of the time maximizes chances of success. When meeting strangers, my clients learned to periodically evaluate which behaviors were most effective in influencing other people to like them--especially people they liked best.

But when they were talking with someone, they only focused on being the person they wanted to be in a relationship. If they thought that being empathetic would help produce happy relationships (outcome), then they would focus on being empathetic (process).

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(4) Focus on DYNAMIC, GROWTH-ORIENTED goals. Static goals are goals that can be completed. Static goals usually center on brief amounts of time. Dynamic goals may never be completed. Dynamic goals usually center on processes occurring over extended periods of time. Some examples follow--the first goal is a dynamic goal vs. the second is a static goal.

  •  Continually improving skills vs. Winning the gold medal
  •  Improving my income each year vs. Making a million dollars
  •  Having a happy marriage vs. Getting married
  •  Spending my life helping others vs. Becoming a physician
  •  Creating beauty vs. Getting a beautiful new house
  •  Learning and growing vs. Achieving perfection
  •  Being happy vs. Having an orgasm

One of my clients was very anxious about her success in graduate school and in her later career. Despite having a very high grade average, she felt like a fake who was not really very intelligent or creative. She said, "I can learn and recall material very well for tests, but I can never express my own ideas or do anything creative."

The real problem was not that she didn't have creative ideas, it was that she never expressed them. She feared being thought "wrong" or "stupid." She was terrified of being "wrong," because all of her life her family and best friends had overemphasized being "right." Being "wrong" was terrible--no one should ever admit being "wrong" or "at fault."

During counseling, she chose to make the process of learning and self-development more important than being right. Then it did not matter much whether she was right or wrong--only how much she learned. Once she resolved that underlying issue, she felt much better about expressing her own ideas--even when others might disagree.

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Get in tune with the dynamic nature of life and the universe. The entire universe is dynamic--not static. It is in continual evolution. There is no real end goal that we will ever see, there is only a dynamic process that changes each moment.

Similarly, our bodies and minds are dynamic systems in continual evolution and change so that they can deal successfully with a continually changing environment. By setting goals that emphasize dynamic processes such as learning, growth, and happiness we can be more in tune with the fundamental nature of the universe.

We can learn to view negative events as part of the dynamic, interesting process that is life. We can develop a world view that will welcome change. We can find life interesting and fun--instead of being so anxiety-ridden by the world's constant state of change. The hardest times of our lives are often our greatest opportunities for growth.

Once we see life as a dynamic process,
then individual events do not matter as much.
What matters most is how we spend our time in that dynamic process.
What matters most is our overall growth, productivity, and happiness.
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(5) We can set SIMPLER, SMALL-STEP goals to increase calmness. What can you do if you are facing an overwhelming project? Often the most effect strategy is to break it into smaller steps. These steps must be small enough so that you feel confident about how to perform each step. Consult an expert (or book) who can help teach you the steps, or spend adequate time figuring the steps out yourself.

One (simple) step at a time can overcome great anxiety and accomplish long-range goals. "One day at a time" is an important motto in 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a strategy that can work for overcoming overwhelming tasks and overwhelming amounts of anxiety or stress.

Systematic desensitization is one of the most successful techniques for overcoming anxiety used by psychologists. Dr. Joseph Wolpe, one of the founders of behavior therapy, invented systematic desensitization. Systematic desensitization consists of having people take small steps toward some more frightening goal--while feeling calm. Taking these small steps (while actually feeling calm) either in their imagination or in real life can help reduce their anxiety. If you do not feel calm enough, take a smaller, safer step.

Much of the technique's success is due to breaking up big, overwhelming goals into step-by-step goals. For example, a man came to see me who had wanted to meet more women at bars, but was terrified of going into bars and asking someone to dance. He had such high anxiety that he would not even go near a bar. Part of his anxiety came from lack of social skills and not knowing what to do in a bar situation. So, he set up a series of small, easy goals to achieve his overall goal of meeting women to date in bars.

The first night he parked outside a bar for about 20 minutes and just watched people go in. He also learned what people were wearing. His next goal was to go into the bar and just look around and learn for five minutes. His next goal was to go in and order a drink, but not to talk to anyone--just watch people. He kept going to bars and learning from watching others. For example, he learned that although many men were better looking than himself, "about 90% of them never asked a woman to dance." Realizing that he wasn't the only one with social anxiety comforted him.

He learned to talk to women, dance, and ask women out with confidence. He became so confident about meeting women in bars, he concluded that bars are "a gold mine most men are too scared to take advantage of."

What a change in attitude from the man who was terrified about even entering a bar! It was done one small step at a time over a time span of a year, but he was persistent and accomplished his "miracle."

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MULTIPLE GOALS--"Go for the Gold," but be prepared for the worst

What kind of attitudes and goals do people who reach the top have? I listened carefully to the American Gold Medal winners in the Winter Olympics as they described their attitudes and goals before their performances.

They entered their gold medal performances in very different situations. The downhill skier Tommy Moe had never been in an Olympic contest and was only given an outside chance of medaling. Bonnie Blair had won three gold medals in previous Olympics and was a favorite. On the other hand, Dan Jansen seemed to carry a "dark cloud" around; he had been the favorite several times, but had never won a medal. People were saying that he "froze" on the ice. Did the three winners have similar attitudes that helped them win?

Yes, in separate interviews all three athletes expressed very similar attitudes and goals I would summarize as, "My goals are to enjoy what I am doing and to perform at my personal best. I would love to win the Gold Medal, but the bottom-line is that I feel honored for the opportunity to participate, and just want to enjoy the experience."

Note that all of these gold medal winners had multiple goals. Their top goal was to "go for the gold," but that was an outcome goal they had little control over. (For example, they had no control over other competitors' performances.) In addition to ideal outcome goals, the gold medalists set "bottom-line" realistic, process goals that they could control themselves. They set goals to enjoy their performance and do their personal best.

PRACTICE: Emphasize (or replace) high anxiety goals with LAPDS goals (and plans).
(1) Identify anxiety sources. Think of a life area (or major goal) where you feel too much stress or anxiety--or an area you have "given up" or avoid. What are the outcome goals you are discouraged or worried about? What are the goal levels? Are they unrealistic? Make MULTIPLE GOALS or goal levels? Write them down, and modify them if needed. Is the problem an unrealistic time line? If so, modify it or go to step 3.

(2) Simplify the outcome goals. Break long-term or complex, large goals into smaller, intermediate goals. What are the big steps necessary to reach those big goals? Get advice if needed.

(3) What happens if you don't reach your goals--worst possible outcomes? Find and write ACCEPTABLE ALTERNATIVE GOALS AND PLANS.

(4) Emphasize (or substitute) PROCESS AND DYNAMIC GOALS instead of outcome and static goals.

(5) What more DETAILED STEPS need to be taken? What little steps need to be taken to accomplish the big steps (above)?

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