4 Steps to Destress Series # 3: Problem Solving

All right. Here we go to step 3 – Problem Solving. This is not likely new to you, and it’s not rocket science. If you enter into it with a willingness to be surprised about what might help? That will create the best outcome. An outcome can arise that may not be visible to you right now.

If you’re just joining us in the series, and want to start at the beginning, here are previous lessons in the series:
Lesson 1: Foundations, fine tune your stress management
Lesson 2: Helpful coping ideas

It’s fine to proceed, just pick one problem for your focus now. It’s recommended you cover the previous lessons eventually, since these lessons lay the foundation for a deep upgrade to your stress management skills. Positive changes take some time, and you’ll need to try new practices – but hey, it’s relatively painless considering the alternatives. (Never getting any relief from stress… those same repetitive circles of anxiety and stuckness… There could be a “Victim of Stress” song parody, to the tune of Victim of Love (eagles)…)

WHAT IS STRESS AGAIN? NAME THE FLAVOR OF YOUR USUAL RESPONSE

So stress defined? It’s when what is on your stress plate (Step 1) feels bigger than your ability to handle it all. This kicks you into freak out, survival mode. That fight/flight/freeze (FFF) mode. It’s helped us survive since the first days of humans.

But today there are no lions chasing us. Examples of fight today? Frustration, aggression, resentment building up but not spoken. Flight examples? Probably avoiding something you need to face – maybe a conversation that needs to happen. You go to sleep instead. Freeze? Great example is binge watching when avoidance is happening – or anything that feels like it numbs you, or shuts you down.

With the FFF mode, you’re not responding as your best, smartest self. You’re not grounded. You can’t see the whole picture. Thus you often miss positive opportunities. Three common responses with high stress are frustration/anger, depression/sadness or fear/anxiety. There can be a combination of these, and/or changing waves from one to the other.

It’s great to recognize your style, your most common stress reaction. Sad and collapsing under high stress? Angry? More on the anxious side? Knowing this will help you steer your coping to a better place, more quickly.

STEP 3 – WHERE TO USE PROBLEM SOLVING

Now for Step 3. Click here to get a blank Step 3 worksheet for yourself. To show how this works, let’s use Kelly’s situation again (click here for Kelly’s version of Steps 1 & 2). Kelly just got laid off because of Covid-19. When she started Step 2, she felt pretty depressed because it felt like nothing was in her control (See the left side of Step 2 for all things she can’t control about being laid off).

Prior to doing Step 2, Kelly had that “woe is me” feeling. Overwhelmed, anxious, even hopeless. But after Step 2 was finished, she was surprised by all of the things that are in her control about this problem. That was the first shift.

In Step 3, you focus on the side of the problem you can control. This is where problem focused coping lives. So, surprise surprise (and surprise is always a good sign) – Kelly had a good dozen things she named that she can control. Where actions she takes could help with the problem. And some of the things on this list? She’s already doing them. For example, diet and exercise are going OK for her now.

Also on this list though, are things that she thinks might help, but she’s not sure exactly how to do them, or where to start with them. For those things on this changeable side, that sound like a good idea, but you’ve no clue how to start with them? That is where problem solving fits in. Just a few more minutes, and steps – and you’ll have some ideas for next steps with important areas.

HOW TO PROBLEM SOLVE

In Kelly’s example, there were at least 3 of the changeable areas that seemed important, but she wasn’t sure where to start. 1) Talking to her uncle about a loan, 2) stress management/self-care improvement and 3) vocational area – revisiting her most meaningful work/skills.

Let’s take the third area, vocational/work skill reassessment to the Step 3 problem solving worksheet. So helpful to use this approach – who doesn’t want to binge watch at the thought of updating a resume?

Step 3, Define the Problem: First Kelly needs to define the specific angle of the problem she wants to tackle. Turns out, she didn’t love her old job. She has skills in this area (IT support), but would like to expand into doing more advanced work (graphic design). So she defines her problem as: I’d like to develop more freelance graphic design work, as well as having a secure IT support position.

See how huge defining the problem was for Kelly – how much this helped her focus? Nice. Next, she rates her stress and confidence, 1-10, with 10 the high end, 1 the low end. Ratings are done before and after, just to help you see any positive progress in lowering stress.

Next Kelly does some brainstorming about what might help, what next steps come to mind. You’ve likely heard some of the best brainstorming practices. Most important – don’t edit these. List anything that occurs to you, without letting your mind say, “Oh that can’t work”, or “I’ve no idea how to make that happen”. Just put it down.

Also, generating 6-10 ideas is important here. This is where you force your brain to get creative, even when it’s aching to binge watch. (Patience – that can be your reward when you’re done.) Keep pushing. Even coming up with a silly idea – or a most outrageous one? I encourage that, because after you finish cracking up, you can be surprised by a subsequent idea that turns out to be genius.

You can next use the scale on the worksheet to rate all the brainstorms / ideas you’ve named here. Just place them where’d they’d fall – with the best fits on the right side, and the bad fits on the left. You’ll soon see what idea comes out as the #1 idea to try. The numero uno winner in terms of possible solutions.

Here is Kelly’s Step 3 worksheet. You can see how she defined the problem, named some possible solutions, and put them on the scale. Even though technically solution #2 won if we go by the scale (it was the closest to the Best Fit side), she chose to start with #1. That made the most sense for now.

KEEP GOING! PROGRESS, LEARNING AND MOMENTUM

Now, Kelly needs to try this out and see how it works. If it works? She’s done; the problem’s solved. If not – she’ll try out the #2 possible solution. Two things to keep in mind – 1) The #1 idea doesn’t have to work perfectly or as expected for it to lead to some success and learning. You still may have more steps to take to continue the learning/progress. 2) Where most fail with problem solving is they stop after trying something that didn’t work. Keep going! Pick the next best idea, and see if that helps. Rinse and repeat.

Here is Kelly’s example of Step 3’s problem solving. How does this work for her? Well, after being pretty hopeless and stressed initially after her layoff, Steps 1-3 have helped her get clear about how to stay productive. She’s learned that while she can’t work on job hunting 8 hours a day, even 2 or 3 focused hours feels great. She’s reserved time during the week for the dreaded networking and finds it good to reconnect with old coworkers.

The rest of the day, she can build her graphic arts portfolio, donating work to friends or revisiting old projects she’s helped with. This is really helping her stress level, to use her creativity, and to develop skills that would really make her jazzed about her work day. Life’s interesting again. Stress level drops down, from a 7.5 to a 3.5.

After a month of trying this new plan out, she hears of a potential job to apply for. She realizes that even if it doesn’t happen, taking action has been huge. It’s certainly been helping her stress level. She’s much more hopeful that her next job situation could turn out better than the last.

SUMMARY OF STEP 3

Step 3 – Problem solving is a type of problem focused coping that is the best fit coping, if you wish to take action but aren’t sure how. Working on this side of the equation – on the stuff you can control about the problem – leads to feeling more empowered. It can seriously lower stress levels, in both the short and long run.

Keys to the most effective problem solving include:

  1. Specifically defining the problem
  2. Brainstorming without any editing
  3. Naming the numero uno solution to try first
  4. Not stopping if this doesn’t solve the problem! Gather the learning, and try your #2 solution

If you’ve tried this out for yourself, you’ve just added a major tool to your stress and coping basket. Yahoo!

Next we’ll look at what’s often the tougher side of problems – the side we can’t control. AKA Emotion focused coping.
Onward, to Step 4!

And here’s the Step 3 Worksheet for you again.

Any questions? Comments? Ask or share below.