Sandra Llera, Ph.D. and Michelle Newman Ph.D.

Are You Problem-Solving, or Just Worrying?

Insights on how to stop worrying about your problems and start solving them..

Posted February 1, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Miguel Á. Padriñán/Pexels

We all have problems—it’s an inevitable part of being alive. But sometimes, when we’re trying to focus our energies on solving these problems, we may actually be doing something far less productive: worrying .

In the anxiety literature, worry is defined as a repetitive pattern of negative thinking about unresolved and threatening issues that could end badly. It’s not just about having one negative thought (“Oh no, I forgot to write that report due on Monday!”). Instead, worry is a sustained period of negative thinking about the issue, and often focused on the worst-case-scenario outcomes (e.g., “What if I can’t finish on time? What if it’s terrible? What will people think of me? I might get fired!” and so on).

It’s not uncommon for people to confuse worry with problem-solving. But unfortunately, despite our best intentions, worry actually derails the problem-solving process.

As worry researchers, Michelle and I have carefully studied the literature on this topic, and have conducted our own research as well. Here are our responses to some of the common questions and misconceptions about worry versus problem-solving.

When I’m worrying about my problems, I’m working on solving them, right?

Actually, no. Worrying is NOT the same as problem-solving. But it seems that lots of us have trouble telling the difference. For example, research shows that when asked why they worry, many people say it’s because they’re trying to solve problems. And this may be especially true for those of us who worry a lot: Another study found that chronic worry is linked to believing that prolonged thinking is required to find the best solutions.

However, recognizing the distinction, and being able to shift away from worry and into more productive thinking, can make a big difference in how efficiently you solve your problems.

Okay, so what is problem-solving, and how is it different from worrying?

In the research literature, successful problem-solving is described as following these steps: clearly pinpointing and defining the problem, determining what you hope to achieve with the solution, coming up with a range of solutions while withholding any judgment regarding the quality of those solutions (brainstorming), weighing the solutions based on pros and cons, and then identifying the optimal solution ( D’Zurilla & Goldfried, 1971 ). In general, the best problem-solvers also hold a positive stance toward their problems—accepting that difficulties are bound to happen from time to time, and believing that they are capable of responding appropriately.

Worry, on the other hand, is more focused on all the things that can go wrong. We identify the threat (e.g., work we forgot to do), but then get stuck in either rehearsing the threat itself (“I can’t believe I forgot! How did this happen? I’m so irresponsible.”) or mulling over all the possible repercussions (“My boss will be so disappointed. This will really throw off the project. Everyone at work will be mad at me.”). When we’re worrying, we’re so focused on these things that we may never even get to the point of coming up with solutions.

Why do I get these two processes confused?

Because thinking about our problems can make us feel anxious, we might confuse that thought process with worrying. This is especially true for those of us who worry a lot. Worriers can have pretty negative beliefs about our ability to solve problems. We find problems to be kind of scary, and don’t feel as confident that we can handle them.

So if you’re a worrier, you may find that thinking about your problems can make you anxious, which can then trigger worrying about the issue instead of focusing on it objectively.

Another reason is that, for many of us, worry feels productive. We’re focusing on the threatening issue, repeating it over and over to ourselves, mulling over possible outcomes (mainly the bad ones), and spending a LOT of time and mental energy doing it. But we’re not getting anywhere . It’s like pressing really hard on the gas pedal while the car is in neutral. You might expend a ton of energy and feel mentally exhausted, but you haven’t moved an inch.

Is worrying really such a bad reaction to my problems?

The short answer is: yes. While it may be totally normal to feel a surge of anxiety when you first identify a threat or problem, it’s not so helpful to keep that anxiety going when you’re trying to fix it.

Here’s why worry is bad for problem-solving.

For one, worrying makes us feel bad . And research shows that feeling bad can influence our judgments and decision-making . That is, a negative frame of mind can make us feel more pessimistic about the problem, and more likely to dismiss any solutions we come up with as not good enough.

Furthermore, when we’re worrying, it takes a lot of mental effort to stop focusing on the threat and shift into more goal-directed thinking. This means fewer cognitive resources left to actually solve the problem.

problem solving in life essay

To get to the bottom of things, Michelle and I recently ran a study (which we also discussed here ) to directly test the impact of worry on problem-solving.

We asked some people to worry about a current problem and others to consider their problem without worrying (e.g., focus on breaking it down into smaller parts, think about end- goals , and set aside negative thoughts). When we then asked everyone to come up with solutions, worry took its toll. Not only did people who worried generate less effective solutions to the problem, worry also predicted that they were less inclined to put these solutions into action. And for those participants who were naturally high worriers, worrying had a significant negative impact on their confidence , too.

In essence, we found that worry impaired problem solving when compared to more objective, less emotional thinking.

Here are some ideas for how to tell when you’re worrying versus problem-solving, and how to change these patterns.

1. When you’re thinking about the issue or problem, take a moment to assess how you’re feeling. Are you tense, distressed, and upset? If so, you might be worrying.

Instead, try to take some slow breaths from your diaphragm and relax. If that doesn’t help, maybe decide to come back to the problem when you’ve had a chance to settle down (e.g., go for a run, take a shower, etc.). Just be sure you actually DO come back to it.

2. Are you spending a lot of time focusing on how things could go terribly wrong (i.e., catastrophizing )? If so, you are worrying.

Remember, focusing on what you DON’T want to happen takes time away from more productive thinking. Instead, focus attention on your goals— this might make it easier to come up with a pathway toward achieving them.

3. As you’re brainstorming, do you find yourself immediately dismissing all your solutions as ineffective? If so, you may be worrying.

Remember, worrying makes us feel pessimistic about our brainstorming process. Coming up with lots of solutions (even if some aren’t that great) is an important part of problem-solving. Just accept them as they come—you can evaluate and fine-tune them later.

Here’s the bottom line:

When you’re going to sit down and focus on a problem, try to do so in an open-minded, calm, and non-judgmental manner. Clearly define the problem, identify your ultimate goals, and think positive! But if you find yourself slipping into negative thinking (e.g., thinking about everything that could go wrong), don’t get frustrated or give up. Just try to let those thoughts go, and refocus your mind on the problem itself.

And remember, despite what you may hear, there is no such thing as "good worry," especially when it comes to your problems. There are so many more productive ways to spend your time!

LinkedIn image: AshTproductions/Shutterstock.

Facebook image: By Marina Andrejchenko/Shutterstock

Llera, S. J., & Newman, M. G. (2020). Worry impairs the problem-solving process: Results from an experimental study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 135, 103759. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2020.103759

Sandra Llera, Ph.D. and Michelle Newman Ph.D.

Sandra J. Llera, Ph.D . is a clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor at Towson University.

Michelle G. Newman, Ph.D ., is a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the Pennsylvania State University.

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Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

problem solving in life essay

Sean is a fact-checker and researcher with experience in sociology, field research, and data analytics.

problem solving in life essay

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From deciding what to eat for dinner to considering whether it's the right time to buy a house, problem-solving is a large part of our daily lives. Learn some of the problem-solving strategies that exist and how to use them in real life, along with ways to overcome obstacles that are making it harder to resolve the issues you face.

What Is Problem-Solving?

In cognitive psychology , the term 'problem-solving' refers to the mental process that people go through to discover, analyze, and solve problems.

A problem exists when there is a goal that we want to achieve but the process by which we will achieve it is not obvious to us. Put another way, there is something that we want to occur in our life, yet we are not immediately certain how to make it happen.

Maybe you want a better relationship with your spouse or another family member but you're not sure how to improve it. Or you want to start a business but are unsure what steps to take. Problem-solving helps you figure out how to achieve these desires.

The problem-solving process involves:

  • Discovery of the problem
  • Deciding to tackle the issue
  • Seeking to understand the problem more fully
  • Researching available options or solutions
  • Taking action to resolve the issue

Before problem-solving can occur, it is important to first understand the exact nature of the problem itself. If your understanding of the issue is faulty, your attempts to resolve it will also be incorrect or flawed.

Problem-Solving Mental Processes

Several mental processes are at work during problem-solving. Among them are:

  • Perceptually recognizing the problem
  • Representing the problem in memory
  • Considering relevant information that applies to the problem
  • Identifying different aspects of the problem
  • Labeling and describing the problem

Problem-Solving Strategies

There are many ways to go about solving a problem. Some of these strategies might be used on their own, or you may decide to employ multiple approaches when working to figure out and fix a problem.

An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure that, by following certain "rules" produces a solution. Algorithms are commonly used in mathematics to solve division or multiplication problems. But they can be used in other fields as well.

In psychology, algorithms can be used to help identify individuals with a greater risk of mental health issues. For instance, research suggests that certain algorithms might help us recognize children with an elevated risk of suicide or self-harm.

One benefit of algorithms is that they guarantee an accurate answer. However, they aren't always the best approach to problem-solving, in part because detecting patterns can be incredibly time-consuming.

There are also concerns when machine learning is involved—also known as artificial intelligence (AI)—such as whether they can accurately predict human behaviors.

Heuristics are shortcut strategies that people can use to solve a problem at hand. These "rule of thumb" approaches allow you to simplify complex problems, reducing the total number of possible solutions to a more manageable set.

If you find yourself sitting in a traffic jam, for example, you may quickly consider other routes, taking one to get moving once again. When shopping for a new car, you might think back to a prior experience when negotiating got you a lower price, then employ the same tactics.

While heuristics may be helpful when facing smaller issues, major decisions shouldn't necessarily be made using a shortcut approach. Heuristics also don't guarantee an effective solution, such as when trying to drive around a traffic jam only to find yourself on an equally crowded route.

Trial and Error

A trial-and-error approach to problem-solving involves trying a number of potential solutions to a particular issue, then ruling out those that do not work. If you're not sure whether to buy a shirt in blue or green, for instance, you may try on each before deciding which one to purchase.

This can be a good strategy to use if you have a limited number of solutions available. But if there are many different choices available, narrowing down the possible options using another problem-solving technique can be helpful before attempting trial and error.

In some cases, the solution to a problem can appear as a sudden insight. You are facing an issue in a relationship or your career when, out of nowhere, the solution appears in your mind and you know exactly what to do.

Insight can occur when the problem in front of you is similar to an issue that you've dealt with in the past. Although, you may not recognize what is occurring since the underlying mental processes that lead to insight often happen outside of conscious awareness .

Research indicates that insight is most likely to occur during times when you are alone—such as when going on a walk by yourself, when you're in the shower, or when lying in bed after waking up.

How to Apply Problem-Solving Strategies in Real Life

If you're facing a problem, you can implement one or more of these strategies to find a potential solution. Here's how to use them in real life:

  • Create a flow chart . If you have time, you can take advantage of the algorithm approach to problem-solving by sitting down and making a flow chart of each potential solution, its consequences, and what happens next.
  • Recall your past experiences . When a problem needs to be solved fairly quickly, heuristics may be a better approach. Think back to when you faced a similar issue, then use your knowledge and experience to choose the best option possible.
  • Start trying potential solutions . If your options are limited, start trying them one by one to see which solution is best for achieving your desired goal. If a particular solution doesn't work, move on to the next.
  • Take some time alone . Since insight is often achieved when you're alone, carve out time to be by yourself for a while. The answer to your problem may come to you, seemingly out of the blue, if you spend some time away from others.

Obstacles to Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is not a flawless process as there are a number of obstacles that can interfere with our ability to solve a problem quickly and efficiently. These obstacles include:

  • Assumptions: When dealing with a problem, people can make assumptions about the constraints and obstacles that prevent certain solutions. Thus, they may not even try some potential options.
  • Functional fixedness : This term refers to the tendency to view problems only in their customary manner. Functional fixedness prevents people from fully seeing all of the different options that might be available to find a solution.
  • Irrelevant or misleading information: When trying to solve a problem, it's important to distinguish between information that is relevant to the issue and irrelevant data that can lead to faulty solutions. The more complex the problem, the easier it is to focus on misleading or irrelevant information.
  • Mental set: A mental set is a tendency to only use solutions that have worked in the past rather than looking for alternative ideas. A mental set can work as a heuristic, making it a useful problem-solving tool. However, mental sets can also lead to inflexibility, making it more difficult to find effective solutions.

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

In the end, if your goal is to become a better problem-solver, it's helpful to remember that this is a process. Thus, if you want to improve your problem-solving skills, following these steps can help lead you to your solution:

  • Recognize that a problem exists . If you are facing a problem, there are generally signs. For instance, if you have a mental illness , you may experience excessive fear or sadness, mood changes, and changes in sleeping or eating habits. Recognizing these signs can help you realize that an issue exists.
  • Decide to solve the problem . Make a conscious decision to solve the issue at hand. Commit to yourself that you will go through the steps necessary to find a solution.
  • Seek to fully understand the issue . Analyze the problem you face, looking at it from all sides. If your problem is relationship-related, for instance, ask yourself how the other person may be interpreting the issue. You might also consider how your actions might be contributing to the situation.
  • Research potential options . Using the problem-solving strategies mentioned, research potential solutions. Make a list of options, then consider each one individually. What are some pros and cons of taking the available routes? What would you need to do to make them happen?
  • Take action . Select the best solution possible and take action. Action is one of the steps required for change . So, go through the motions needed to resolve the issue.
  • Try another option, if needed . If the solution you chose didn't work, don't give up. Either go through the problem-solving process again or simply try another option.

You can find a way to solve your problems as long as you keep working toward this goal—even if the best solution is simply to let go because no other good solution exists.

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Stewart SL, Celebre A, Hirdes JP, Poss JW. Risk of suicide and self-harm in kids: The development of an algorithm to identify high-risk individuals within the children's mental health system . Child Psychiat Human Develop . 2020;51:913-924. doi:10.1007/s10578-020-00968-9

Rosenbusch H, Soldner F, Evans AM, Zeelenberg M. Supervised machine learning methods in psychology: A practical introduction with annotated R code . Soc Personal Psychol Compass . 2021;15(2):e12579. doi:10.1111/spc3.12579

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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Problem Solving Essay Examples

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