Do You Know the Difference Between Worrying and Problem Solving?

Worrying Woman Many people worry by focusing on the problem or situation, rather than thinking about how to make the problem go away or improve the situation that is causing them distress.  When we change our method and focus instead on the solution – the problem-solving aspect of the worrisome situation – we are more able to focus on those things we can change.  Problem-solving moves us toward more constructive alternatives, and has a more positive effect on our mood, while also allowing us to find potential solutions.

*Julie’s daughter chronically refuses to do homework and is disrespectful to mom when asked about it.  Julie keeps ruminating about how her daughter is ruining her grades and will not get into a good college.

*Samantha’s husband is always late and she feels it leaves her holding the bag with friends who are waiting for them.  She fumes about his rudeness thinks his behavior is disrespectful and becomes moody and quiet when in that situation.

*When Norene feels excluded by the girls in her 5th-grade class, she feels sad and worried.  Even her best friend sometimes prefers to play with other girls and then leaves her out.

You can see how easy it would be to focus on the problem part of these situations and become trapped in a cycle of feeling sad, anxious, and upset.  In all of these cases, the individual has no control over the behavior of the other person and may feel unable to find a reasonable solution.  But the real answer is in trying to figure out what you can control and taking action in that area, rather than ruminating about what someone else did to you.

Here are some things to consider:

* Problem-solving is closed-ended, rather than a continuous stream of thoughts. Julie can consider thinking about how she will deal with her daughter’s behavior today… by ignoring it, by imposing consequences, or by talking to the school guidance counselor.  Any of those is more helpful than thinking about a destroyed college career that has not yet happened.

* Problem-solving is sequential and organized.  When we are upset, our thinking is often random and disorganized.  When we try to solve a problem, our thinking is an orderly progression of steps.  In the example above, Samantha can think in advance about her husband’s tardy behavior, and select some steps that may help: talking to him in advance, telling him an earlier time to be there, warning friends and suggesting they order appetizers.  In each instance, she can consider the likelihood of her idea working and how her husband will react.

* Problem-solving is solution-oriented and focuses on possible outcomes instead of on the cause of the situation.  Norene may be worried that her friend no longer likes her, or that the other girls are encouraging her friend to exclude her.  If she tries to think of solutions (perhaps with the help of her mom or a teacher) she may decide to play with someone else, or talk to her friend and let her know that her feelings are hurt.

* Problem-solving reduces stress.  In all of the cases above, a problem-solving approach will lower stress, and make a person feel less sad and anxious, whereas focusing on the problem or cause of the situation is likely to continue to increase stress.

* Problem-solving improves our sense of self.  When we problem-solve, we feel more positive about ourselves and recognize that we are being more resourceful.  When we focus on the cause or the triggers, we feel helpless and ineffective, giving us a negative view of ourselves.

Problem-focused thinking is a frequent source of stress.  Focusing on what you can control, and how you can change things, is a more appropriate coping mechanism and improves your sense of personal effectiveness.  Learning to problem solve is much easier, once you have developed the cognitive behavioral techniques to identify your thoughts, label your emotions, and recognize how the stress is affecting your daily life.