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Research Article

Goal motives in depression and anxiety: the mediating role of emotion regulation difficulties

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Pages 284-293 | Received 08 Jun 2022, Accepted 19 Dec 2022, Published online: 13 Feb 2023



Goal orientation (approach versus avoidance) and difficulties in emotion regulation have been independently associated with depression and anxiety. However, there is a lack of research that has simultaneously examined approach and avoidance goal motives and emotion regulation difficulties in depression and anxiety. The present study aims to draw together these separate lines of investigation to better understand the nature of depression and anxiety from a motivational and emotional regulation perspective. Specifically, it aims to investigate whether increased emotion regulation difficulties indirectly mediate, in part, distinct relationships between approach and avoidance goal motives and depressive and anxious symptoms.


An online study comprised 210 participants recruited via Facebook and MTurk. Participants completed self-reported measures to rate their approach and avoidance goal motives, emotion regulation and depressive and anxious symptoms.


Counter to prediction, no significant relationship was demonstrated between impaired approach motives and increased depressive symptoms. However, as predicted, avoidance goal motives were associated with depressive and anxious symptoms. Further, increased emotion regulation difficulties indirectly mediated relationships between avoidance goal motives and both depressive and anxious symptoms.


Our findings indicate that emotion regulation difficulties play a significant role in explaining the relationship between avoidance (but not approach) oriented motives in goal pursuit and emotional symptom.

Key Points

What is already known about this topic:

  1. Much research has examined approach and avoidance ‘goals’ in relation to anxiety and depression. There is strong empirical evidence to indicate that avoidance goal pursuit (focused on threatening outcomes) is associated with anxiety whereas impaired approach goal pursuit (focused on reward outcomes) is associated with depression. However, research has rarely studied underlying ‘motives’ that drive goal pursuit. Motives represent a more primary form of motivation than that expressed at the surface goal level. For instance, it is possible that an underlying avoidance motive energises and drives approach goal pursuit.

  2. We also know that emotion regulation is implicated in emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

  3. Despite well-developed two-system theories of motivation and emotion regulation, research has rarely investigated the relationship between distinct approach and avoidance motives and emotion regulation in relation to depression and anxiety, which the present study addressed.

What this topic adds:

  1. The research findings inform an understanding of the nature of depression and anxiety from both a motivation and emotion regulation perspective.

  2. Notably, avoidance motives gave rise to emotional regulation difficulties, which in turn indirectly explained the relationship between avoidance motives (but not approach motives) and depression and anxiety. These findings further inform theoretical developments when considering motivation and emotion regulation simultaneously.

  3. The findings inform the ongoing development of more effective interventions in treating anxious and depressive symptoms, from a motivation-emotion regulation perspective.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Data availability statement

Data that support the results presented in this manuscript will be freely available upon request to the corresponding author: j.dickson@ecu.edu.au

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