Mayo Clinic Health Library

Problem-solving techniques for stress management

Updated: 07-23-2013

Feeling stressed? You're not alone. Most adults report being under increasing levels of stress. Modern life is filled with change and uncertainty, complicated relationships, urgent deadlines, and long workdays. Developing your problem-solving skills can help make life's challenges more manageable.

Problem-solving is the process of identifying stressors and creating strategies to manage them. It's a powerful tool to add to your stress management toolbox. You can brush up on your problem-solving skills with these simple steps. Like any skill, the more you practice the more effective you'll be.

Identify the problem

Before you can attack a problem successfully, you have to understand it. This means looking at the problem from all sides. Write down a brief description of the problem you want to solve. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • What is happening?
  • Where and when is it happening?
  • Is it happening around certain people or in specific situations?
  • How do you feel about it?

Be specific and focus on issues. Try to avoid assigning blame. Now take a step back. Consider these questions to determine if the problem deserves the time you'll spend resolving it:

  • Is the problem really that big? Would others think so?
  • If you could solve this problem, would your life improve?
  • Is there any part of the problem over which you have control?

You can't change everything, so it's best to focus on issues you can realistically change and that will make a real difference in your level of stress. In other words: Choose your battles.

Brainstorm ideas

Now that you have a well-defined problem, it's time to think about solutions. Think of all the ways in which you might solve your problem. The sky's the limit. Now isn't the time to judge whether one solution is better than another. Not sure where to begin? Try these tips:

  • Recall past problems that you were able to solve. Could a similar solution work for this problem, too?
  • Ask friends, family and people you trust for advice.

If you're still having trouble, perhaps your problem is too complicated. In that case, try to divide and conquer. Break the problem into smaller parts you can more easily tackle.

Remember, consider everything that pops into your head — even ideas that initially seem silly. Your stress-reduction plan may include a little zaniness. Maybe taking a salsa dancing class after work a few days a week will help you to unwind better than would quiet meditation.

Select a solution

Of all your creative ideas — silly or serious — which has the most potential? You might want to consider:

  • Do you realistically think it will solve the problem?
  • How will using this solution make you feel in the end?
  • What are the possible positive and negative consequences?

When you've chosen what looks like the best solution, take another couple of minutes to think it through. Even the best solution may require fine-tuning. You might ponder:

  • Do you have the resources and, more important, the will to carry out your plan?
  • What new problems, if any, might the solution create?
  • What might go wrong? Can you correct this part of the plan?

Don't be discouraged if your plan isn't perfect. A good long-term solution may temporarily generate new problems. That doesn't mean you should give up the plan, just that you need to be prepared to make course corrections or even switch to a plan B.

Put your plan into action

It may help to write down the details of your plan. Be sure to really commit to it before giving up or trying something else. Believe in yourself and go for it.

Reflect on your experience

You're not done problem-solving quite yet. Experience is a great teacher, if you're willing to take a little time for reflection.

  • Did your solution solve the problem?
  • If not, what issues remain unresolved?
  • What would you do differently the next time?

Mission accomplished?

Problem-solving is a natural human talent. We're born solving problems from our first attempts as babies to grasp and crawl. We may not count the thousands of choices we make each day as problem-solving, but that's what they are. So when you focus on solving more complicated problems, have the confidence of knowing that you've got plenty of experience behind you.

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