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The Secret to Solving Problems When You’re Anxious

Remember that your reaction to the problem is not the solution.

Key points

  • Anxiety is often a signal that something is wrong and needs your attention.
  • Anxiety can make it difficult to focus and think clearly to find solutions.
  • We may lack the self-awareness and self-control to monitor our reactions in the moment, which can make the problem worse.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Many anxious people experience a strong reaction when they first notice a problem. Then, as their anxiety spikes, they may even panic. In this elevated state of arousal, thinking clearly, reaching out for help, and finding solutions can be very difficult.

For example, when Amy first noticed a problem, be it an error on her credit card statement, a comment her mother made that didn’t sit right with her, or a request from her boyfriend that seemed inconsiderate, to name a few, her anxiety spiked, and she felt panicky and confused.

As she became more anxious, she doubted that anyone would be there to help her. Reacting to that belief, she started exaggerating the problem to make it easier to convince others that it was serious. Unfortunately, this strategy often backfired, making people annoyed and doubtful of her claims.

In therapy, she gained more self-awareness about her strong reactions. She often felt helpless when problems first arose. By making things more dramatic, she felt a sense of control – even though the control was often an illusion. She traced this habit back to her childhood when her parents did not believe her when she complained, ignored, or trivialized her distress. Now, as an adult, she figured that the only way to get others to see there was a problem was to make them as uncomfortable as she was. So, as a consequence, when Amy was distressed, everyone tended to avoid her – which was, ironically, her worst fear.

Separating Your Reaction From the Problem

Amy needed to separate her strong reaction from the solution to the problem. Instead, she tried convincing others that the problem justified her strong reaction. She needed to understand that she had two separate tasks: to manage her anxiety and find a solution.

As an observation exercise from my book on mirror meditation, Amy made some video journals to see herself from an observer’s perspective as she experienced distress. First, Amy made videos of herself in a rambling panic, enraged and confused, blaming others and saying mean things about them, and so on. Later, when she was in a calm, centered space, Amy watched her videos back mindfully. She felt various emotions as she watched herself, from annoyance to embarrassment to helplessness to compassion. She realized that these displays of intense distress created more stress for everyone.

Amy gained great self-awareness and an understanding of her reactions by studying her video journals. She became more aware of when she was about to spin out into an exaggerated reaction. Amy learned to pause, breathe, ground, and center and make a short video practicing calming self-talk. With practice, she was able to calm herself down before she reached out for help.

Amy realized she was looking for her feelings to be validated when upset and trying to solve the problem simultaneously. Often, that was too overwhelming for others. I suggested that she separate her reaction from the problem. Getting her response validated was entirely different from getting the problem solved. Often Amy would have her big reaction, others would become annoyed and withdraw from her, and she’d be all alone with her problem. Instead, I encouraged her to trust her ability to detect problems.

When she thought about it, it was rare that she ever imagined a problem. But often, it was the case that she saw the problem before others did. As a result, Amy had an early warning system. One of her more insightful friends called her “a canary in the coal mine” – to describe her ability to see the danger before others did. This sensitivity was a valuable skill that Amy had to learn to use wisely.

The key was being consistent. When there was a problem, Amy would react strongly and become very anxious, but she had to keep pursuing a solution no matter what others’ judgment was about her or the situation. Instead of backing down in frustration or exaggerating and intensifying things, she learned to stay with herself and the problem at hand consistently.

Amy knew she’d never be a super laidback person. But she was able to build more trustworthy relationships by responding consistently. She learned to accept her strong reactions and separate her reaction from finding a solution. As a result, she found people who would support her consistently and appreciate her sensitivity.

(c) Tara Well, Ph.D. 2023


Well, T. (2022). Mirror Meditation: The Power of Neuroscience and Self-Reflection to Overcome Self-Criticism, Gain Confidence, and See Yourself with Compassion.

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