When Problems Seem Insurmountable

Health Writer

Anxiety can impair your ability to solve problems according to a few studies [2004, Ohio State University and 2004, Caselli et al]. Studies showed that an increase in anxiety helped while recalling information but also caused a decline in cognitive abilities, which are needed to solve problems.

The difficulty in managing problems which come up can show up in different ways:

  • You become obsessed with the problem, thinking about it all day and losing sleep at night, but never coming up with a solid solution
  • Feeling as if any problem is "the end of the world" blowing even little bumps in the road out of proportion
  • Feeling cranky and irritable, taking it out on other people in your life

When you have difficulty managing problems that come up, it can seem as if life is simply one problem after another; that your life doesn't have any good in it, just hardship. You focus on what goes wrong rather than what goes right.

While there are times you may have major problems that seem insurmountable, the truth is many, if not most, problems that come up are simply bumps in the road. Sometimes time itself will sort out the problem, sometimes, taking action will make it go away. In other times, problems present new opportunities and ways to learn and grow.

Steps for Solving Problems

When confronted with a problem, whether large or small, having a plan can help. The following are steps you can take:

Determine what the problem is. When identifying your problem, be as specific as possible. While this sounds easy, it is not always so simple. Break your problem down into one simple statement.

For large and complex problems, you may need to tackle one area at a time, solving underlying problems before focusing on the large problem. If this is the case, write down the large problem and then list the smaller ones that must be solved first. Choose one that you will tackle first. Write your problem statement for that one area.

Decide what your solution looks like. It is hard to solve a problem if you don't understand what the solution is or how you will know if you have reached your goal. Once you have clearly stated what your problem is, write down what the solution is.

For some problems, this will be a clear cut answer, for example, if your problem is "my computer is not working" the solution will be "my computer will work." But other problems may not have such a clear cut answer; for those you will need to think about what you want to happen to help you know when you have solved the problem and can move on to other parts of your life.

Make a list of how to solve the problem. For most problems there are several different ways you can arrive at a solution and your frustration may come from getting "stuck" on trying to solve it only one way. Opening your mind to finding different ways, and different solutions, can help get you unstuck and help you move forward. It often helps to ask someone to help with this step, brainstorming different options to help you reach your goal.

Create a plan of action. Once you choose which option you will use to solve your problem, you need a plan of attack. Write down the steps you need to take to reach your goal. Be as specific as possible, listing every step, no matter how small.

Implement your plan. Beginning with your first step, follow your plan of action to work toward your goal.

Review your progress as you go along. There may be times you need to adjust either your final solution or the steps you need to take to get there. If this happens, go back to step one and begin again.

In the beginning, these steps might seem cumbersome and time consuming, however, as you practice and follow the steps for each problem, you may find these steps become easier and more routine.

Remember, each problem in life gives you the opportunity to learn and grow; changing how you view problems goes a long way to helping you solve them.

See more helpful articles:

Obstacles to Treating Anxiety

Seven Ways Your Body Says 'You're Stressed'

Managing Emotional Turmoil


"A Distinctive Interaction Between Chronic Anxiety and Problem Solving in Asymptomatic APOE e4 Homozygotes," 2004, Richard J. Caselli et al, The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences pp 320-329

"Anxiety Good For Memory Recall, Bad For Solving Complex Problems," 2004, Oct 30, Staff Writer, ScienceDaily

"Appreciate the Complexities Involved
in Decision-Making & Problem Solving," 2003, Author Unknown, Cuesta College

"Seven Steps to Problem Solving, Date Unknown, Author Unknown, University of Pittsburgh