3 Stress-Reducing Strategies to Improve Problem Solving

When things don’t go the way we want, it’s easy to get stressed out. Whether it’s dealing with a difficult task, managing an upset customer, or teaching your child good table manners, there are ways to stay calm and solution-focused.  What should you do first? Catch your thoughts.

Decisions that lead to stress

I promised to proofread a sixty-page manuscript for my husband. He wanted to send it out by the end of the day. I figured it would take me about an hour. What was I thinking? After an hour, I was only halfway through. Impatient, I was thinking of all the other things I wanted to do. My chest tightened. “Breath Marilyn,” I coached myself. Ahh, a moment of relief.

But a quick minute later the tension was back. With every paragraph I found myself thinking, “This is taking too long. I have other things I want to do. I want this to be over.” My mind just wouldn’t shut up about it.

A memory popped in my head from my college days. Back then, I had a part-time job as a computer counselor. I helped students discover and fix errors in their programming code. I was known as someone who could find even the most hidden programming bug.

But whenever I had a tough bug in my own computer code, I could not find it for the life of me. I always sought out someone to help me.

Depersonalize the challenge

I got stuck one night around midnight in the computer lab, and couldn’t find a soul to help. Not knowing what else to do, I sat down at my counseling desk and looked at the code as if it was somebody else’s.

All of a sudden, the error popped out at me. I solved the problem. “That was weird,” I thought. From that time on, anytime I’d get stuck, I’d look at the problem as if it were someone else’s and the solutions came easily.

Your thoughts have something in common with computer code. They can get caught up in an endless loop.

The more I noticed my thoughts and the way those thoughts made me feel, the more I realized that I sometimes require an update in my mental programming to release stressful thinking. Can you relate?

“Is it possible to reprogram my way of thinking about proofing the manuscript?” I asked myself.  I knew it was true. Why then was my first thought, “No. Leave me alone. I want to be miserable about this.”

It’s a bit shocking to notice those thoughts. There were two parts of me – the part that was thinking and the part noticing what I was thinking. Thoughts don’t always like being noticed. Though, I was committed to feeling better which meant getting present and making a conscious choice.

I gave myself a moment to decide if I was really willing to complete proofing the manuscript or if I would be better off renegotiating my commitment so that I could get on with other things on my to-do list.

Surrender to the reality of what is

I chose to complete the proofreading and accept the time it was going to take to finish it. I looked at the clock and said to myself, “I am going to accept that for the next hour I will be doing this task.” Again I felt resistance. If I accepted it for an hour, I’d have to stop complaining about it for an hour. I’d have to let go of accomplishing some of the other things that were more enjoyable to do. I decided that I’d test it out and only accept it for the next ten minutes of proofreading. Oh, what a beautiful feeling of relief. I even started to enjoy the words I was reading.

I’d love to say that I read the rest of the manuscript completely free of stress. Almost. Tension would still creep in every now and then, but when I noticed what I was thinking, I was able to redirect my thoughts and relax again.

Most would agree that you get better results by making conscious decisions from a stress-free state of mind. So, what can you do to reduce stress when you’re in the middle of a taxing task?

Try these three tips:

Notice what your body does when you’re feeling stressed.

Do you find yourself breathing shallow? Take a few slow, deep breaths. Do you notice that your shoulders tense, your stomach or teeth clench or your brow furrows? Take a moment to release the tension from the areas of your body that holds your stress.

When you have a problem that you don’t know how to solve, ask yourself what solution you might give to someone else who had that problem.

Sometimes by depersonalizing the problem, you become more objective. This can help you get past the areas in life that hold you back. If it was someone else’s problem you might tell them: Say yes to that opportunity or take a walk instead of plopping in front of the television, or buy the car you can afford instead of trying to impress people with a car that would put you into debt. Imagine what might change for you if you start taking your own advice.

Referee your thoughts.

Research shows that people have about 60,000 thoughts a day and most of those thoughts are repetitive. Some thoughts are helpful. Others are not. Start to notice what you think. We’ve all developed patterns or styles of thinking that either make us resilient or distressed. When you notice your pattern you have a better chance of redirecting yourself, lowering your stress, and making more productive choices.

As strange as it might sound, sometimes you can become friends with feeling bad. When I was running an activity for a workshop recently, I asked the group to identify a self-limiting thought that most often reoccurs for them. People came up with thoughts such as, “I’m too old to start a new career.” “I’ll never be my ideal body weight.” “When my child does poorly on a test I feel like I’m the one who failed.”

I asked them: If I clapped my hands together and that thought would be gone, would you want me to clap? Several of the participants admitted to having a moment of doubt. One person said, “If I stopped thinking that thought, then I’d really have to start doing something to become more financially fit.”  Her next comment was, “Wow, that’s an eye-opener!”

What’s a self-limiting thought you’ve been believing? Which is more stressful for you, keeping that thought around like an old friend or letting it go? You might wonder, “Would I stop being me without the same old thoughts?” You would still be you. Try it. You can always go back to thinking those old thoughts if you choose to.  Just for today, try making friends with thoughts that better support you.

Have you tried these strategies or others? Leave a comment below.


Marilyn works with organizations that want to stand out as a provider of choice and with people who want to work well together.


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