Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

How to problem solve instead of worrying

If a person attributes a problem to personal incompetence or deficiencies, they will have difficulty seeing the problem as a normal part of life. If you believe that you have problems because you are flawed in some way (“I just don’t have it when it comes to managing difficult people”), you will tend to see your problems as being abnormal. Remember that everyone has problems no matter how intelligent, sociable, good looking, or skilful they may be. It may seem that some people do not have problems, but this is probably because they deal with them quickly and efficiently. So, by not attributing your problems to “who you are”, you will be able to see your problems as a normal part of life and you will be able to deal with them more efficiently.

Seeing Problems as Challenges Rather Than Threats


There is quite a difference between a threat and a challenge (or opportunity). Most notably, we usually try to avoid threats whereas we often try to take on challenges. So seeing a problem as a threat rather than a challenge will have quite an impact on how we deal with it. It is well established that people with GAD tend to see problems as threats to be avoided rather than challenges to be met. You may be thinking: “Yes, but my problems ARE threatening.” And of course, you are correct. However, if you could see your problems a little less like threats and a little more like challenges, this would make quite a difference.

Worries about current problems are addressed by applying sound problem-solving principles to the problem situation. Research shows that people with GAD sometimes have difficulty solving everyday problems for a number of reasons. The most important of these reasons is referred to as negative problem orientation. Problem orientation essentially refers to how a person sees and reacts to problem situations. A person with a negative problem orientation tends to recognize problems when it is “too late”, to see problems as an abnormal part of life, and to see problems as threats to be avoided rather than challenges to be met. A person with a negative problem orientation will have great difficulty applying their problem-solving skills and actually solving their everyday problems. And if problems remain unsolved, the person will continue to worry about them.


But having a positive problem orientation is only the first step in the problem-solving process. In order to become an expert at problem solving, one needs to master all steps of the

Problem-solving process. The five steps to sound problem solving are the following:


  1. Problem orientation
  2. Problem definition and goal formulation
  3. Generation of alternative solutions (“brainstorming”)
  4. Decision making
  5. Solution implementation and verification


Improving Problem Orientation

We will begin by examining ways to improve your problem orientation and then move on to the other problem-solving steps. As mentioned above, problem orientation involves how we see and react to problems. Research shows that people with GAD often see their problems and react to them differently than do people who are moderate worriers. This negative problem orientation can manifest itself in many ways. We will examine three common manifestations of a negative problem orientation:

(a) the failure to recognize a problem before it is too late;
(b) believing that it is not normal to have a problem; and
(c) seeing the problem as a threat rather than a challenge.


Recognising a Problem Before It Is Too Late


When a person does not want to have to deal with problems, they sometimes avoid seeing the problems that come up in day-to-day life. Often, problems begin small, and if nothing is done to solve them, they begin to grow and become more complex. Unfortunately, a person who does not want to deal with problems often ends up having much more serious problems to deal with. Imagine that you had a misunderstanding with someone at work and decide to not think about it. That person may begin to hold a grudge and believe that you just don’t care. They may then begin to tell your co-workers about the problem and the problem may begin to grow and become more complex as others are brought into the situation. By the time you decide to deal with the problem, it may have become a minor crisis at work with many people involved. So by trying to avoid dealing with the problem, you have gotten yourself into a position where you have to deal with something much more difficult and complex. This example clearly shows the importance of dealing with problems as soon as they arise and “nipping them in the bud.” We suggest two ways of helping you recognize problems before it is too late.


Example 1: A Job Interview



Initial reaction: “I hate interviews. Why do I have to go through this agony? I never do well in these types of situations. I will make a fool of myself just like the last time. I just wish it was over.”


Then try: “I’m really nervous before going to an interview. What is the opportunity for me in this situation? Well, maybe I need to learn to show what I am capable of doing. Interviews are not easy, but it would be great if I could learn to sell myself. That is a skill that I will need many times in my life. I guess I could try to look at this as an opportunity to get experience interviewing and to get better each time.”


Example 2: A Conflict with Your Boss


Initial reaction: “What a jerk. I can’t believe he doesn’t understand that I have too many responsibilities. Why does he keep giving me more? I can’t take this. I’m probably going to burnout and have to take two months off. This is terrible.”


Then try: “I really have too much work. I’m feeling stressed out and I don’t think I can continue like this much longer. It’s really difficult for me to tell my boss that I have too much work. What is the challenge for me in this situation? I guess I need to develop the ability to speak frankly with my superiors or else they will never know how I feel. In a way, I could see this problem as an opportunity to develop those skills. No matter what happens, it is important that I sit down and speak with my boss.”


Example 3: The Illness of a Loved One


Initial reaction: “My father is suffering from a serious illness that requires expensive treatment. Why does this have to happen to our family? It’s awful to have to spend so much money on this medication; one day he won’t be able to afford it any longer. This is so unfair.”


Then try: “What is the challenge for me in this situation? It is certainly difficult to see how illness can be a challenge. I guess I could see this situation as an opportunity to show my father just how much I really care. I could help out as much as possible and show him that I am with him all the way. Although I am certainly distressed, I see this as an opportunity to be strong for someone I love.”


In summary, the way we perceive and react to our problems has a considerable impact on our ability to deal with them. By improving your problem orientation, you will be in a much better position to use your problem-solving skills for your problems, big and small.


Problem Definition and Goal Formulation


Before trying to solve a problem, one must properly define it. Although this may seem obvious, our clinical experience has taught us that many people try to find solutions to problems that are vague and confusing. We have also observed that many of our clients do not separate their problems and end up trying to solve many problems at once! Needless to say that when a person tries to solve many problems at once, the solution turns out to be disappointing. When one becomes aware of a problem, it is necessary to define it in a clear and concise way in order to generate effective solutions. A problem that is not well defined will lead to ineffective solutions, or even worse, to behaviours that will make the problem worse. For example, if you are experiencing problems at work and you define the problem in a very vague way (“My boss is an insensitive person who takes advantage of me”), you will have difficulty generating solutions to the problem (“How can I make my boss more sensitive?”). If, on the contrary, you define the problem clearly and specifically (“My boss gives me too many files to work on”), you will increase the chances of generating effective solutions (“I will set up a meeting to discuss this issue and ask for a 5 % reduction in the number of files I handle”). In order to adequately define a problem, you can ask yourself the following questions:


  1. “Who is involved in the problem?”


  1. “What is happening that disturbs me?”


  1. “When does the problem occur?”


Generally speaking, the same principles apply to goal formulation; our problem-solving goals should be clear and concise. If your problem-solving goals are vague and confusing, how will you know if you have reached your goals? Only clear and concise goals will allow you know if you have successfully solved your problem. A second set of principles also applies to goal formulation: your goals should be realistic and attainable. The formulation of unrealistic or unattainable goals almost always leads to disappointment and loss of confidence in our problem-solving ability. Therefore, if your problem-solving goals are clear and concise as well as realistic and attainable, you will increase your chances of becoming an expert in the art of problem solving.


Generation of Alternative Solutions


The generation of alternative solutions is often referred to as the brainstorming stage of the problem-solving process. The object of this problem-solving step is to generate as many alternative solutions as possible so as to increase your chances that the best solution will have been generated. Although this notion may appear very simple at first glance, we know that very few people actually generate multiple solutions before making their decision. Most people generate only one solution and then apply this solution without considering other possibilities. Why is this so? Because there are many obstacles to generating multiple solutions. The first obstacle is habit. Although our habits can sometimes speed up the problem-solving process, they can also keep us from finding the best solution. For example, if you apply old reflexes to new problems, your solution may not be adaptive and effective. The second obstacle is convention. By doing things in a conventional way, you may have the impression of doing the “right thing”, even when this is not the case. In order to generate as many solutions as possible, the following principles have proven to be extremely useful.


  1. Quantity Principle: This principle states that the more solutions you generate, the more quality solutions you will have to choose from.


  1. Deferment-of-Judgment Principle: According to this principle, you will generate a greater number of quality solutions if you suspend judgment of the solution ideas until a later stage of the problem-solving process. As a matter of fact, it is very important to generate all kinds of solutions, even those that seem a little “crazy.” You may not end up applying these crazy solutions, but they may make you think of other solutions that aren’t so far-fetched…


  1. Variety Principle: This principle states that the greater the variety of solutions generated, the more good quality ideas will be made available. This principle underscores the importance of being creative when generating solutions so that a wide range of solutions will be available.


If these principles do not allow you to generate many alternative solutions (after having made a considerable effort), you may want to try again with the help of someone else. The goal of this problem-solving step is to generate many (at least 10) alternative solutions that include a wide variety of ideas. Do not forget to include a few “far-fetched” solutions just for good measure! One final suggestion: you may want to combine different solutions to generate new ones that are more complex. In our clinical experience, we have seen many clients combine two far-fetched solutions to make one excellent solution.

Decision Making


Once you have generated many potential solutions, you will be in a position to make a decision as to the solution of choice. The goal of this problem-solving step is to select the best solution among the available options. This is quite different from looking for the perfect solution. The search for a perfect solution is an important obstacle to decision making because the perfect solution probably does not exist! Generally speaking, you must assess the arguments for and against each alternative solution. At this stage, it is a good idea to proceed by using the “process of elimination.” First of all, you should eliminate all solutions that are clearly inappropriate and inferior (they have already served their purpose). Next, you can ask yourself the following questions for each remaining solution.

  1. “What are the chances that this solution will work?”
  2. “What are the short-term and long-term implications of this solution?”
  3. “What are the implications of this solution for me and for others?”


By asking yourself these questions, you will increase your chances of selecting a solution that brings about a desirable outcome for you and for others in both the short and long term.


Solution Implementation and Verification


The final step of the problem-solving process involves the application of the chosen solution and the assessment of its impact. In other words, did this solution allow you to attain the goals you formulated at the start of the process? The application of a solution is influenced by our behavioural skills; therefore, it may be necessary for you to practice certain skills before applying the solution in the actual problem situation. For example, before asking a person to change a specific behaviour, it may be useful to practice with someone close to you. In this way, you will receive valuable feedback about your way of asking a potentially delicate question. Once you have implemented your solution, you can assess its impact on the problem situation and on your mood. Because the problem-solving process is closely related to your distress (problems are problems because they are distressing), an effective solution should help you to feel better. If the solution does not allow you to reach your problem-solving goals, then you can return to the decision-making stage and select another solution. However, if you have reached your goals, then the problem-solving process is over. You can reward yourself for a job well done by doing something that you really enjoy.


Resolution of a Problem


Name: Date: Therapist:
Description of the problem:


Possible solutions:


Chosen solution:


Application of the solution, evaluation of the results:


Observations, comments:


Worry is wasted energy whereas problem solve and you will feel more empowered and less helpless. We all have to face uncertainty in life. Accept what you can’t change and problem solve the rest.


Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash