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
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.
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!
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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