Commons.wikimedia.org
Source: Commons.wikimedia.org

Do you have a problem that’s taking up too much space in your life and your mind?  Shrink it!

You would need years of education to become a “head-shrinker,” the rather unlovely term for a psychiatrist or therapist.  But you can become a “problem-shrinker” just by reading this blog.  Choose one or more of the 12 strategies below to shrink an annoying problem that wants to take up more space in your life than is wise or necessary.

I recently became vitally interested in shrinking problems when I came home from a short trip to discover that a pipe had burst between my first and second floor bathrooms. It was a shocking sight. The ceiling had caved in. Drywall and plaster had

Meg Selig
Source: Meg Selig

rained down on the floor, the sink, and the toilet. The remedy: All the bathroom plumbing on two floors and the basement would need to be replaced, and, as a result, flooring, drywall, and ceilings would have to be rebuilt and then repainted as well.

In the weeks and months that followed (the repair is still not quite finished as I write), I had more mental meltdowns and hissy fits than I could have believed possible.  These were hard both on me and on those around me.  I needed to do something…and not just about the pipes but about my own mental health.  So I decided to figure out ways to shrink the problem.

By the way, “shrinking a problem” should not be confused with avoiding, ignoring, or minimizing a problem that must be faced.  Nor do I want to downplay the life-changing reverberations of major problems—death, disease, loss of loved ones, trauma.  This blog is for those of you who, like me, need to shrink small to medium-size problems that can influence us out of proportion to their importance. 

Here are some of the techniques that helped me cope with the pipe problem as well as with other common annoying situations:

1. Chip away at the problem by taking small actions.  

When I first discovered the burst pipe, my first line of defense was to call an expert—in this case, my partner. He advised me to turn off the water at the shut-off valve (which we had previously tagged and labeled), call a plumber, call my insurance company,

Meg Selig
Source: Meg Selig

and take photos.These commonsense actions immediately reduced my feelings of panic and overwhelm.

2. Shrink the words you use to describe this problem.   

“Complete disaster.” That was how I described the burst pipe destruction when I first saw it. Later--much later, I was able to relabel the burst pipe issues as “a complicated challenge.” Reducing the intensity of my words helped me calm myself.

I learned this trick from my sister when I had to have a “horrible medical procedure” many years ago.The thought of it terrified me. When I confided to my sister how scared I was, she suggested I think of this procedure as just a “nuisance.” Replacing the words “horrible medical procedure” with “nuisance” made the dread easier to bear. (Thanks, Sis!)

3. Shrink the problem in your mind by relabeling it as a “challenge.”

Similarly, relabeling the problem as a “challenge” or “learning experience,” corny as it may sound, can help turn your anxiety into curiosity or even excitement. The “challenge” word may even help you see the potential for learning hidden in the problem. I must admit that at first I resented having to deal with the problem at all. But eventually I forced myself to listen and learn for the sake of my house.

Recently I noticed that a neighbor had posted a “Please Help!” notice on our neighborhood website. She, too, was coping with a plumbing crisis—I mean, challenge. I recommended the actions in #1 above. When she thanked me, I realized that I actually had learned something and that my new “expertise” had enabled me to help others.This was a satisfying feeling in itself.

4. Realize that you are not alone.

I also learned how common these extreme home repair problems were, and many were worse than mine. The tile salesman was coping with a burst pipe in his kitchen that had ruined his finished basement. The waiter at a favorite restaurant had accidentally burned down his mother’s house (“It involved a cat, a couch, and a candle.”). Friends and colleagues—quite a few had faced a similar experience. I was now a member of a not-very-exclusive club.

5. Focusing on gratitude can shrink a problem.

Considering how unlucky I was to have a complicated home repair challenge, I was pretty lucky. I had a comfortable place to stay.  I had savings to pay for what insurance didn’t cover.  Better a leaky pipe in my house than a leaky artery near my heart!  I wasn’t a refugee looking for shelter or a civilian in a war-torn country or the victim of a terrorist attack.

I also found two wonderful home repair companies to help me at the various stages of the job. Turning the problem over to experts whom I felt would act in my best interest was an indescribable relief. I will never be able to thank them enough for saving my house AND my sanity!

I found myself reciting two sayings that I found consoling: “My worst day could be the best day of someone else’s life.” “If it can be fixed with money, it’s a small problem.” These sayings helped me take a big-picture perspective on my situation.

6. Shrink the problem by being kind to yourself.

Although taking a big-picture perspective can help shrink a problem, chiding yourself for being upset about the burst pipe when there are children starving in Africa, as I occasionally did, was a recipe for suffering. In my case, trying to take a big-picture perspective could sometimes be a roundabout way of judging myself, making a hard time even worse. Let's face it: Inconvenience and disruption in the "nest" are not fun. Even “first-world problems” hurt.

I learned that I had to consciously practice self-kindness.  For example, I would tell myself: “Yes, others have it worse; still, this is a hard problem to live with. I will be kind to myself and give myself the compassion I would give to a friend in this situation.” Self-kindness is a magical balm that can shrink problems to their proper proportions and relax an over-wrought mind.

7. Apologize to others who may have been in the path of your rage and upset.

Don’t let bad feelings fester.  If you’ve been a jerk, apologize early and often.  Tips here.

8. Shrink the problem by writing about it.

My friend Rebecca knows I love to write. When I complained to her about the pipe project, she suggested I buy a small notebook and devote it to notes on the repair.  Carrying around that notebook—whether I remembered to write in it or not—restored my sense of control.

Although this blog is about small to medium-sized problems, it’s worth noting that even writing about traumatic events can lessen their impact for many people, according to the research of James Pennebaker. (See below)

9.  Maintain or increase your self-care program.

The more you maintain your exercise program, good nutrition, and regular sleep, the more energy and mental resources you will have to meet the challenges of the problems you face.  I gave priority to anything related to fixing my house, but I did my best to fit exercise and other self-care activities into the crevasses of the day. 

10. Shrink the amount of time you talk about the problem.

I love to complain. In fact, I consider it an art form!  And sometimes complaining leads to great suggestions and stories from friends or relatives, as detailed above.  But after a while, I realized that complaining/discussing/reporting on the pipe problem did not make me feel better, because it just spread out the leakage of the problem into my daily life.  Decide if talking about your problem relieves stress or just causes more of it. 

11. Give yourself permission to savor each moment of your life, even if the problem remains unsolved. 

Learning to savor the moment is always a valuable skill.  Cultivating the ability to find something enjoyable or interesting even in trying situations is a valuable mindfulness practice, as PT blogger Toni Bernhard points out in her new book, How to Live Well With Chronic Pain and Illness.  

You can also give yourself permission to take vacations from the problem, whether a one-minute break to gaze outside or a few days away from home.  Letting the problem alone for a while—setting it down—can help renew your energy.   And where is it written that you have to be miserable because you have an unresolved issue in your life?  Nowhere. There will always be unresolved issues. Enjoy the day!

12. Remember, this too shall pass.

Reminding yourself periodically that your problem will not last forever is a useful coping tool.

Think before you shrink.

Of course, no technique works all the time. That would be…well, a pipe dream.  However, in my case, consciously deciding I would use these techniques helped me pause, think, and shrink.

So the next time you have a problem that’s taking up too much space and time in your life, shrink it!  Try one or more of the techniques above and you’ll become an expert at putting problems in their proper place.

© Meg Selig, 2015

Sources: Pennebaker, JW & Evans, JF (2014). Expressive Writing, Idyll Arbor.

Bernhard, T. How to Live Well With Chronic Pain and Illness (2015). Wisdom Publications: Somerville MA.

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