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How I Set and Accomplished Goals to Recover From Depression and Anxiety

I am crossing the finish line for my first half-marathon (13.1 miles) at my old college, Virginia Tech. I completed it in just over three hours and I feel great. I ran the race with some friends from high school that I hadn’t seen in 10 and 20 years. I was not only very happy, but also met a goal I had set for myself and basked in the satisfaction of saying “I did it.” Two and a half years earlier, I was in a deep depression with anxiety and stress from complex the post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) I struggled with at the hands of bullies as a child. How did I get to today? One simple word: goals.

Setting goals can be one of the toughest challenges when you are dealing with both mental and physical recovery. Studies show that goal setting when you feel defeated can be extremely hard. I didn’t just say to myself that my goal was to run a half-marathon, it was a long two year process to get to this race. It all started in the depths of my panic anxiety and depression from C-PTSD. I knew that, in order to get better, goals and very small baby action steps would have to be set for myself. That’s not to say that I won each daily battle, but eventually, I did end the war with myself. Of course, my first goal was the hardest — to get out of my depression.To conquer this goal, I took action steps, which started by seeing mental health professionals and reading many self-help books. There were two themes that I gathered: exercise and nutrition are important to the recovery of a mental and even physical problem. So I promised (as much as I hated exercising) to work on that.

Here is how I set and accomplished goals while recovering: 

1. Take small bites over time.

For me, the first part of goal setting was setting action items. These are the small steps you need to take to meet a larger goal. It is important to have simple and achievable steps to the goal. In my case, it was just to start exercising, which, for me, began on an elliptical machine for 20 miserable minutes five to six days a week. Remember, I hate exercising. I also started eating much better. After a while of this, and other help, my depression fog began to lift. Then I started doing more activities at the gym. Then I ran a couple of 5k (3.1 miles) races to see if I could do that. Each of the achievements was also a goal, and smaller bites were done for each one. How do you eat a whole giant sandwich? One bite at a time and maybe over several hours or days.

2. Make your goal achievable.

I think this is very important. Many of us want to make our goal bigger than we should. For example, if my goal was to run the half-marathon, that is it. If I added a time variable that said I want to run it in under three hours, that would have been too big for someone who never ran 13.1 miles in his life. All your goals are ones that you believe you can meet. Avoid adding some ending that makes the goal unrealistic.

3. There will be setbacks.

Prepare yourself now for the possible frustration of setbacks. My goal was to run the half-marathon, but I did not achieve that for two and a half years. That might seem like a long time, but it was realistic. I had several setbacks, like not being mentally or physically prepared, having other obligations get in the way and others things. Be careful about setting too short of a timeframe for the big goals. Be happy to be moving forward a little bit at a time.

4. Half the success is just showing up.

Has this ever happened to you? You set a goal well in advance. As the day approaches for the goal to be completed, you get anxious, stressed and start to self-doubt. Let’s say you paid a good amount of money in advance as well. When the magic day arrives, all your self-doubt shows up and you decide it’s better to just not go than to fail. I have talked to many people about this and I think it happens all the time. There’s a sign on the door as I enter my gym. It says, “Know that showing up is half the battle.” It is so true. Your mind might convince you sometimes that you “can’t,” but it’s your job to prove it wrong. Was I totally anxious and stressed before my marathon? Oh yes, I was. Did I contemplate calling my friends before going and telling them an excuse, like I was sick, to avoid going? Oh yes, I did. Did I fight my mind and self-doubt? You bet. Once arriving, I had a great time and the anxiety and stress began to melt away. I believe it is the one fight that most have, but it’s up to you to change your “can’t” to a “can” and enjoy the ride.

5. Believe in yourself.

This is probably the hardest part of setting goals, particularly when you are feeling low. I believe you must find a way to say “I can do it,” not, “I might be able to do it,” or, ”I can’t do it.” Changing your thought pattern to one that is more positive, in my opinion, is part of all essential recovery treatments. You have to keep saying, “I can do it.” You say that because you can! Love yourself, do good things for yourself, believe in yourself. I think that is what will see you through to the finish line.

So, there I was with my two friends, finishing the half-marathon — and I wasn’t the slowest. Certainly one of them, but that’s OK because it was my first one and I just wanted to complete it. Six months earlier, my friends and I made a pact to do it and we did. There are no words that could easily tell you the feeling of elation that is doing something that, when in a time before, you thought you couldn’t. My path there required many baby steps and a positive attitude. Both these things seemed impossible only two years before. Now I must set another achievable goal for myself because I understand the power that goal setting has on my mental and even physical health.

I am 47 years old and I’m only just now learning how to say “I can do it” and mean it. And I will tell you, from my vantage point, it feels really great!

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Thinkstock photo via Suat Gürsözlü 

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