This blog spends a lot of time talking about not treating problems/issues/challenges in our lives as crises. And if you read this blog at all I’m pretty sure you have a good idea about what the definition of a crisis is to our brains and bodies – the threat of immediate physical danger that will likely result in injury or death.

That at least is the definition of a crisis as evolution defined it for us – the kind of thing that Flight or Fight evolved to deal with in the natural world. But how does that compare in detail to what a PROBLEM is – i.e., what most of us are afraid of and escalate to a crisis in our thinking? (And which is the primary cause of the fight with anxiety.)

My mission today is to lay out a clear definition and set of steps for what a problem looks like, in hopes of showing just how different it is from a crisis –

What Solving a Problem Looks Like

I wish someone had defined how a problem is actually managed and how we normally go about solving it a long time ago. It could have been stinkin’ useful at some points in my checkered past…

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Here’s a start: a problem is anything that isn’t a crisis. Not so helpful? 🙂 Think of it this way: a crisis, a real-world crisis, does NOT allow time for anything but instant action, and what thinking we do we do in crisis mode – i.e., rapid assessment of danger, plotting routes of escape (or plans of attack if we must fight), whatever it takes to end the crisis NOW and get away from danger. This is usually taking place in seconds or at most minutes.

Problems, on the other hand, are anything else – any other issue, concern, challenge, etc. that isn’t going to hurt or kill us this second, but which present some need for us to resolve at some point. Problems are, relative to real-world crises, issues that will take time and thinking to resolve. It might BE a crisis in 10 minutes, or next week, or next year, if we don’t take action now, but right now it is still only a problem.

That of course doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t go about solving problems as crises – as I said earlier that’s the very heart of our fight with anxiety. That also however doesn’t mean that solving problems like crises is usually very effective, or even effective at all.

Let’s get specific about what solving a problem looks like operationally –

The Classic Steps to Problem-Solving

1. Identify the Problem. What is the challenge/issue/concern, precisely? What will not solving the problem potentially do to us? What WILL solving the problem look like?

2) What are some potential solutions to this problem? Which seem more or less likely to be helpful/effective?

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3) What do I need to know to implement these solutions? I.e., what information do I need to gather, what research do I need to do, what resources will be necessary, who can help me with these solutions, etc.

4) Pick a solution.

5) Implement your solution.

6) Did it work? Great. Problem solved.

7) It didn’t work? OK. Let’s dance this dance again. That may be as simple as picking the next option on your list, or it may involve going back to the drawing board/ideas for solutions step.

As you have probably already considered this process could take 2 minutes (where are we going to lunch today?) to literally years (how will I afford to both eat bon-bons all day AND live at the beach?)

The thing to focus on here is that this is a PROCESS. It is a very different orientation to thinking about things than the mode that we get into when we’re dealing with Flight or Fight, i.e., when we’re treating a problem like a crisis.

There isn’t really a process when we’re under attack by danger. We first consider (at light speed) how to get away from danger or, if we can’t see a way to escape, how we can best take on this danger. Our brains have narrowed their focus, our bodies are geared to run or fight, and we need to do something NOW.

On the other hand problems have a much more analytical sense about them. Problem-solving is a very intellectual, abstract process, and it usually requires a cooler head and a calmer body. It takes time to follow the process, even if it is something as simple as deciding where to go to lunch.

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Great, Erik, Thanks for Sharing – How Does This Help Me Fight Anxiety?

Glad you asked:

1) Flight or Fight can (and usually does) make it damn difficult to think rationally or clearly – i.e., be in problem-solving mode rather than crisis mode. So one thing to keep in mind is that when we’re in the middle of a firefight with anxiety – heart racing, emotions boiling over, panic in temporary command – we can practice reminding ourselves that we’re not, in fact, in any danger at the moment, however it feels. IF we were in actual danger we’d either be running or fighting right now.

Nope, we’re dealing with a problem that FEELS like a crisis. And FEELINGS are trying hard to rule the moment when we’re anxious. But the truth is our feelings are wrong – completely wrong – and they really CAN’T help us solve this problem.

Yes, the problem we’ve converted into a crisis may be important – even critically important. Yes, we need to take steps to solve it. But that’s going to require a different kind of thinking than the one we experience when we’re in Flight or Fight.

So our mission becomes FIRST calming down, to any degree – powering down Flight or Fight to the extent that we can in those moments – THEN start reframing this little dilemma we’re frightened about as a problem, not a crisis.

That can sound very detached and rational, and we’re usually anything but detached and rational when we’re in an anxiety fight. So just hang on to these two thoughts – I’m NOT in a crisis (or I’d be doing something about it!) and my mission is to gear down my Flight or Fight reactions, THEN start problem-solving, to the degree I can.

2) Focusing on problems AS problems takes practice, especially for us anxiety fighters. So one GREAT way to combat our anxiety is to very deliberately take one thing that frightens us (after we do a little prep, get as cool as possible, have some breathing techniques and distraction tools handy to help us de-escalate if we get rattled doing this next step) and then –

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Treat that scary thing as a problem. Pull out a piece of paper or your laptop and follow the steps I listed in this blog post. YOU DON’T HAVE TO SOLVE IT IN ONE SITTING!  That’s part of the practice, after all – treating the problem as a problem, giving it some time, gathering some data, doing some research, considering your options, etc.

The first couple of times will be scary, I’m betting. I know they were for me! By the same token this is right in line with the four skills I argue are essential to mastering our fears – identifying where we’re treating problems as crises, actively discounting our Flight or Fight responses when we’re anxious, converting those problems-turned-crises (in our thinking) BACK into problems, and learning the art of good self-care.

Practice really does change how we think, and how we approach problems as well…

3) We can use this (as we get more skillful with our anxiety tools) to even stop thinking from escalating to crisis mode in the first place. Doesn’t that sound good? As we develop the habit of pulling problems apart as problems we can begin to approach with greater confidence problems in general, and treat them as problems before we start to make ourselves crazy with anxiety.

Start Small

You don’t need to pick your biggest fear to get this practice going. I recommend a smaller fear or worry first. 🙂 Maybe we save world peace or resolving the problems with your in-laws once you’re feeling a little skillful.

Last note: the irony of this conversation is that most of us already have some decent problem-solving skills in one or more areas of our lives – work, dealing with kids, managing money, etc. We’re all different, but 99.9% of us already DO this treating problems as problems in one or more arenas of our lives.

So – what problems are you dealing with as crises? And where will you practice first? Problems are problems. You’re smarter than you give yourself credit for – and you have access to a lot of good information and thinking via the Web, your friends and/or family, your local library, etc.

And feel free to post a problem you’re treating as a crisis here at the blog! I and the other fear fighters will be happy to help…

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