How To Use Problem-Solving to Manage Stress

Why problem-solving?

Problem-solving is a process for finding solutions to issues. This is a problem-focused approach for dealing with stress, for finding a way to address the actual stressors. 

You may think you have already gone over your options. However, it is easy for our brains to shift into unproductive "worrying mode" and decrease logical thinking when we are feeling pressure. When the fight/flight response is activated, our thoughts become reactive and and hyper-focused on playing out the threat. We often need to take a step back to assess the situation and our options more objectively. 

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Identify the stressors

Note the stressors you identified as being something you might be able to do something about. Be specific about what makes the situation a problem for you. For example:

Work Projects:

  • 4x due in 3 days

  • solo projects

  • unclear instructions and expectations

  • limited knowledge of the topic 

Financial Payments: 

  • rent, car, and utility bills all due at once

  • recent unexpected expense

  • low savings

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Identify possible solutions

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The next step is to list all possible solutions. Allow yourself to be creative, without thinking yet of practically or comfort, as this will allow you to come up with options you may not have considered. 

Following this, remove any options that are unrealistic or undesirable. Identify the solutions you'd prefer to explore. For example:

Work Projects:

  • talk with manager: ask for extensions / ask to eliminate an assignment / clarify guidelines and expectations

  • talk with coworkers: ask for help

  • research subject matter

Financial Payments:

  • contact companies for extensions or alternative payment plans

  • prioritize payments

  • borrow money from family or friends

  • see a financial counsellor

  • sell some personal items

  • get a second job 

Let's say part of your stress with work projects is the uncertainty of what is expected from you. Perhaps you just need to ask your manager for clarification on this. Or, as uncomfortable as this can be, sometimes part of eliminating the stressor is being assertive and setting boundaries. This may involve saying “no” or communicating what we really need. We sometimes just need to directly ask for something, like help with finances, an extension on a project, or the removal of or pause on something expected of us.

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You may need to consider options that aren’t comfortable for you, or options that may increase your stress temporarily in other ways. You may need to take a hard look at your priorities and how you manage your time. If part of your stress is financial, this may mean difficult decisions about asking family for a loan, selling items to help get some money coming in, or cutting back on certain expenses and focusing on necessities.

Evaluate the pros and cons 

It will help to weigh the pros and cons of possible options. Will the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Here is the example of the financial payments problem, and the option of borrowing money from family and friends:  

Advantages:

  • able to pay bills on time

  • won't go into more debt or need to use questionable repayment deals with companies

  • people are available to help

Disadvantages: 

  • feel embarrassed and guilty

  • will still have to come up with the money eventually

  • burden of owing money 

The next steps involve deciding on one or a few of the options; specifying your planimplementing your plan and evaluating how the solutions have helped to address your stressors. 

The goal of addressing your stress, such as through problem-solving, is to adjust your perception of resources vs demands, by working directly on removing or minimizing the demands, and/or increasing your resources.

Directly adjusting your perception is explored further in How Reappraisal Helps Reduce Stress. 

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Hi! I'm Shannon and I am a Registered Psychotherapist. I also have lived experience with mental illness. My site is geared towards the discussion of various mental health and wellness topics. The hope is to demystify some mental health concepts and strategies; to increase mental health and emotional literacy; and to continue to normalize and destigmatize mental illness. 

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