Solving Actual Problems (Instead of Just Coping Skills) – Break the Anxiety Cycle 26/30

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In this post, you’ll learn more about solving actual problems instead of just coping skills

I recently got an email from a woman who said that she was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression. She tried yoga, mindfulness, self-compassion, grounding skills, and some DBT skills. She saw doctors, she tried multiple medications, but still, she had so much anxiety it made it hard to function in life. 

But, she said, something did work. Leaving her abusive husband. 

You see, the problem wasn’t the anxiety in her head, the problem was the situation. She was married to an abusive man. He was physically abusive, emotionally abusive and financially abusive for 17 years. 

In that situation, you could do all the therapy in the world, but the anxiety probably wouldn’t go away, because Anxiety wasn’t the problem, anxiety was a messenger. And in this situation, it was delivering a truthful message- “you aren’t safe”. And no matter how much coping she could do, how much yoga and positive thinking, it wasn’t going to change the situation for her. She said that when she finally left the abusive relationship all of her symptoms greatly decreased. She continues to get support from her family, friends and professionals, but she doesn’t experience severe anxiety and depression any more. 

Sometimes the best treatment for anxiety isn’t psychological. It’s not mindfulness or grounding skills, it’s actually taking action to solve a problem

In this video we’re going to explore how to manage anxiety by solving problems instead of just cope with them. 

And in this section of the course, we’re going to talk about how to listen to anxiety as a messenger, how to take action that gets to the root of the issue, instead of just trying to change how we feel- with the surprising outcome being that it often changes how we feel. 

Anxiety Is A Messenger

OK, remember the function of anxiety? It’s our body’s alerting system, it’s like a smoke alarm. It sometimes goes off when there’s no danger.  But when there is a real danger, when there is actually a fire, it doesn’t do any good to just keep silencing the alarm, you need to put the fire out or leave the house, and make plans for fire prevention in the future. Anxiety is a messenger. 


So one of the biggest problems is that people put all their energy into making their anxiety go away or making their stress go away, but the emotion was never the problem. Avoiding the emotion, or avoiding the problem is usually the problem 


So the question you need to ask is: Is there a real problem? What is Anxiety trying to tell me? Am I actually in danger? Or am I feeling in danger when I’m actually safe? If it’s the latter- the previous two sections of the course- changing how we think and turning on the parasympathetic response are a good way to deal with it, but when there’s an actual problem to be solved, facing the problem is the absolute best solution. 


One of the biggest problems with popular stress management advice is that it’s all focused on reducing the stress response, on relaxation. Instead of actually addressing the stressor. 

  • If I’m worried about finances, maybe that’s because I need to create a budget and a long term financial plan, not just practice some breathing techniques. 
  • Stressed about your email inbox? Don’t just do a meditation- set some boundaries- delegate, unsubscribe, determine which emails are essential to your role and which ones aren’t, take your work email off your phone or stop checking it at night. 
  • Does that one person drive you crazy? Instead of just using a relaxation technique, Perhaps you need to learn a new skill- be more assertive, set better boundaries, learn to communicate better or deal with conflict appropriately. The anxiety around that relationship might be a sign that something needs to change, and you may need to level up. 

These may sound like trite solutions, I understand that the lasting solution might be more complicated, but the idea is- you can’t just manage anxiety by managing your response, we have to look at the stressors, not by avoiding them, but by facing and resolving them. 

And I want to emphasize this, resolving problems is not the same as avoiding them. You can’t just cut people off – and use that as your only tool, you’ll end up very lonely. You can’t just avoid everything that makes you anxious. Because 1- that shrinks your life down and 2- it feeds the anxiety cycle. Avoidance increases anxiety.

So if anxiety is a messenger, and sometimes anxiety is trying to tell you that something is wrong, what do we do about that? We need to face problems and resolve them. Let’s talk about how to solve problems like a therapist. 

Step One. Write down the problem to clarify it.

Nick Wignall says “Never worry in your head.”

You might be amazed at how much good that simple step actually does. Be specific and concrete. Don’t say “Work is too stressful” say “I get stressed out because we have so many projects at once and I don’t know which ones I should focus on so I feel like I’m never doing good enough because there’s always more to do”. By being more specific, writing down each project, exploring that feeling of “Never good enough” you’ll give yourself something tangible to work on. 

Step Two. Visualize what a positive outcome would look like. Be solution oriented

What would it look like when that problem is solved? 

  • I would be clear on my responsibilities at work and excuse myself from email conversations that don’t apply to me. I would have clear set- hours each week when I do and don’t answer emails. 
  • I would know how much money I can spend, I would have a backup fund, I would be out of debt. I wouldn’t feel worried about money all the time because I would feel confident that I knew what to do and was doing it. 
  • I would communicate more directly with my mother in law. I would tell her what I do and don’t like inside my own home. I would ask her to call before showing up. 

And you’ll notice that I focus on what you can change, not what you can’t change. We don’t waste time imagining that we didn’t need to work or that your mother in law magically transformed overnight, we focus on the steps we can take. 

Three: Overcoming mental blocks

I bet when I brought up these solutions, you had an automatic resistance to one of these answers- you thought “That’s not realistic!” or “That will never work” so this is the third thing therapists do when they solve problems- we know how to identify and work around mental blocks. 

Most of us have a default way of dealing with obstacles. We all have a hammer, but when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and suddenly you’re surprised when a hammer won’t drive a bolt. So let’s identify your mental blocks? What’s your default response to problems?  

The biggest challenges I see in therapy are:

  1. People don’t have the skills to solve a problem (ie they don’t know how to have crucial conversations, they are too scared to speak up, they don’t know how to set boundaries)
  2. They are too scared to do what they need to do, they’re letting their emotions make their decisions, instead of their values. We’re scared of change, our nervous system prefers a familiar hell to an unfamiliar heaven.
  3. They don’t know what they really want– their values.
  4. They need support organizing a big complex emotional problem.  They need someone to help them get clarity- essentially a sounding board, with a whiteboard. I think one of the most effective skills is learning to break a problem down into small steps. We may know how to do this at work, but few people know how to do this with emotional or mental problems. 

And here are some other common mental blocks. 

  • We can’t see the real problem- we’re lacking perspective
  • Do you avoid, ignore or procrastinate when dealing with difficult issues in their life?
  • Do you wait until things are in crisis before addressing them?
  • Do you “Just think positive” to suppress or control your feelings and just “Hope it all blows over”??
  • Maybe you revert to helplessness– Maybe you think “but my boss will never change” or “I’m just a bad problem solver, I’ll never figure this out” or “This problem is impossible to solve” your thoughts are justifying you in your helplessness, they aren’t true, they’re comforting thoughts that you choose to believe because they excuse you from effort.

Do you blame everyone else for your problems? Well, my boss is just a narcissist, he’ll never change. Or ‘the economy’ forces me to be poor.

Four: Ask for help, get an outside perspective.

A lot of the time, we don’t even realize that our habitual mental blocks are what’s stopping us from solving a problem, because we can rarely see our own blindspots. So this is a great time to get some support and another perspective. An honest friend, helpful family member or therapist can help you get a new perspective on the problem and break through your mental blocks. 


Get other people involved- if an individual comes into therapy complaining about their spouse/child/parent I try to see if they’ll both come to therapy. So much of the time, the people we are struggling with are the exact same people we are unwilling to have a real conversation with.

Five: Use a growth mindset.

Instead see problems as an opportunity to grow and learn new skills, to level up. If your problem is not getting along with coworkers, the opportunity might be that it is a chance to improve your communication skills and possibly resolve some arguments with your coworkers.


  • What is the situation? (e.g. my boss gives me too much work)
  • What would I like the situation to be? (e.g. I would like my boss to give me less work)
  • What is the obstacle that is keeping me from my desired situation? (e.g. I’m unsure how to talk to my boss about my work obligations)

If you take every problem and ask- what is a skill that I could learn from this situation, you’ll almost always find something that will help you improve as a human being, make your life better. 

I need to learn how to have better self-control with my budget, I need to learn the skill of assertiveness, I need to learn how to say no to people or how to clarify which tasks take priority. When you look at a problem as an opportunity to learn, you’ll feel a sense of hopefulness. 

Six: Get creative

Be honest, we get pretty lazy in solving problems, we like to try the same thing that worked in the past. If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem seems like a nail. You may think that a hammer is your only option, but there’s actually thousands of tools, some of which you’ve probably never heard of. So this is where it can be helpful to Brainstorm solutions. Make a list of at least 10 options, even “ridiculous” ways, that you could potentially solve a problem. Write down any possibilities. don’t judge any of them, get a bunch of variety. Let’s try this with the overbearing mother-in-law

  1. Cut her off entirely
  2. Have a dance party with her
  3. Print out a list of rules for your home and read them with her
  4. Have a conversation with your husband and ask him to talk to her
  5. Never talk to her again (I didn’t say these were good options) 
  6. Move out of the country
  7. Take a class on assertiveness
  8. Read a book or 10 articles on mother-in-laws
  9. Ask your friends how they would proactively handle the situation
  10. Have a really difficult conversation, make a list of talking points and sit down with her and your husband and really do it. 
  11. Send her a passive aggressive text
  12. Send her a carefully thought-out email
  13. Read a book on setting boundaries and set a boundary with your MIL (You may not see the kids if you undermine my rules at my house) 
  14. Find a way to be funny and crack jokes with her
  15. Do something she really likes, bond with her
  16. Schedule in her specific time, let her know that she’s wanted- but you decide when
  17. Give her more responsibilities- include her in plans and ask her to contribute- make her feel wanted and loved-
  18. Ask her to go to therapy with you, or mediation, or the climbing gym
  19. Positive reinforcement- tell her what you really like when she does it. 

I mean, I get it, some of these are really bad ideas. But one of them might be helpful. And if nothing else, you wouldn’t be stuck doing the same thing all the time and feeling crappy about the situation. You’d be learning something with each experiment. 

Seven: Select one to act on. 

Do it! Stop overthinking it. But actually. Most people are afraid that they might have picked the wrong solution, or that perhaps there is a better solution if they just think about the problem more. This is not helpful thinking: it is better to act than to do nothing at all.

Sometimes the attempts to fix a problem don’t work- you just learned something- this is forward progress, this is iteration. Don’t be a perfectionist. If you really want to overcome decision paralysis you could try this:

Rank the possible solutions in order, from best to worst. Rank each on “how likely is it for this approach to work?” Pick the most reasonable plan and put the plan into action. If it doesn’t work, go to the next best solution and try that one. Continue to try until you solve the problem

So, there’s my approach to working through problems, this is how I solve problems as a therapist. 

  1. I help people get really clear on the problem 
  2. We visualize what they do want
  3. We work through mental blocks
  4. We get support
  5. We see every problem as an opportunity to learn
  6. We get creative
  7. We just try stuff, one thing at a time and learn from each experiment. 

So often, with anxiety, anxiety isn’t the problem. When we shift our attention away from a hyperfocus on our feelings and instead focus on working toward the life we dream of, we can solve problems and actually resolve the root of the anxiety. 

K, I hope this is helpful, in the next video we’ll talk about how to face our fears using exposure therapy. 

Click below to learn more about the course, Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days. 

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