2 Steps To Problem Solving When Stressed, Anxious Or Other

When anxiety, stress, jealousy, rage or any other fight-or-flight based emotion comes knocking at our door our problem-solving abilities shut down. We slip into ‘fight for your life’ or ‘run for it’ mode, which means that we are suddenly unable to see any kind of solution to the problem in front of us. More than that we often become passive witnesses to the automatic and often volatile responses that fly out of us during those times.

Have you noticed this? Can you think of a time recently when you felt stressed or worried and you felt like you had no options to manage the situation? LIke you responded automatically or could only see one possible course of action ahead of you?

If so, did you also notice that after the event you could suddenly see that there had been other ways to respond or react? That there were other ways you could have problem-solved your way out of the situation? 

Don’t worry. You are not alone. This happens to everyone. If you have been following my articles for a while then you will be well versed in why this occurs. If not, don’t worry, start here and then return to this article to for some simple steps you can try to improve your ability to problem solve during times of stress. 

Step1. Ask yourself: Is there anything I can do about this situation?

When overwhelmed by a thought or a problem ask yourself: Is there anything I can do about this situation

  • If the answer is NO: Use a self-soothing strategy to manage how you are feeling. This could include either a breathing exercise, a grounding technique or a meditation. Click on each word for specific instructions for each one.

  • If the answer is YES: Decide to try the concrete problem-solving strategy below. Remember, when you are in fight-or-flight mode problem solving is hard so you may have to pair this with a self-soothing strategy to make sure you are calm enough to problem solve.

Step 2. Do this concrete problem-solving strategy

  1. Write down the problem. Be very specific about what the problem is. For example, be specific about who is involved, what is happening, when it will happen or happened.

  2. Generate at least FIVE possible solutions to that problem without thinking about whether they are possible or not. These may not come to you easily. You may have to ask others what they would suggest as solutions. You may have to ask yourself what someone else would suggest as a solution. Notice any temptation to ignore a potential solution at this stage. All possibilities no matter how unlikely should be listed here.

  3. Add at least ONE totally ridiculous solution. Something that makes you laugh. This helps relax us a little increasing the chances of the fight-or-flight response switching off.

  4. Write down the pros and cons of each item. Really think through this. Take your time. Make sure you write at least one pro and one con. Include what other people would tell you are the pros and cons in these too.

  5. Decide on the one choice that feels most manageable. Having read through the pros and cons, which one do you feel seems most realistic for you to try. You may at this point want to combine a couple of the possible solutions, making a blended solution.

  6. Decide how you would put that into practice. Be specific. Write down what you will do, when you will do it and what you will need to be able to do that thing.

  7. Do that thing!

  8. Review the outcome. Take time to come back to this activity. Write down what happened. Write down whether it was the outcome you wanted or different to that. Decide whether you have met your need or not. If not, try another one of your solutions.

That is all!

As with all the tools I suggest, this will work best if you practice it repeatedly when calm. If you do this when calm you will be better able to do this when you need it most during times of distress.

Remember, your brain has been keeping you and all humans alive for thousands of years through the use of the fight-or-flight response. It isn’t just going to allow you to use a new strategy during times of distress if you have only used it once or twice.

Therefore, practice, practice, practice and this skill will become second nature. It will make those times when it feels like there is no way out from a worry or a thought feel like a useful marker that lets you know it is time to take control, to get your problem solving and self soothing skills on, and make choices that suit your values rather than that of the fight or flight response.


I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get psychology out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my Blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online over video link.

Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.


Dr Soph