Helping you get through tough times

Problem solving

You know how sometimes life seems to be going along smoothly, when all of a sudden everything starts going pear-shaped?

Life can throw a lot of problems at us, so arming ourselves with tools to help solve them really makes life easier.

park benchHow you think about problems is up to you, and can depend on how you’re feeling at a given time. When you’re feeling confident, problems can seem like challenges or puzzles to be solved.

When your self-esteem or energy levels are low, it’s easy to see problems as burdens you’re powerless to resolve. When faced with a problem, we often feel:

  • overwhelmed
  • stressed
  • frustrated at yourself or others
  • depressed
  • confused
  • angry
  • pressure from yourself or others
  • physically sick, including headaches or migraines
  • distracted
  • tired.

When you do something about solving a problem you usually feel better, even though sometimes there’s not much you can do.

Rather than panicking and feeling like you need an immediate solution, try to work through it using step by step problem solving.

Using this method doesn’t always lead to perfect solutions, but it increases your chances of resolving something partially or even completely. It might also help you feel more in control of the situation.

Step by step problem solving

Going through the steps of problem solving will become instinctive the more you do it. Sometimes it’s helpful to get ideas from other people, such as family members and friends, though in the end it’s up to you to decide what action to take.

Some tips on resolving problems step by step:

  • Divide the problem – sometimes a bunch of problems are all linked in together. When this happens, separate them so you can work on each issue. For example, you might feel like you hate your school. But really there could be a number of specific things bothering you – problems with classmates, exam stress or feeling unfairly treated by a teacher. These are three individual problems, which though related to each other, should be dealt with separately.
  • Work out goals for each problem – ask yourself what the best thing you can do to resolve the problem is. Focus on things you can actually do, not what you’d like to happen. For example, hoping your exams get cancelled isn’t a realistic goal, but working out a revision plan that will help you pass them is. Check setting goals for more.
  • Brainstorm – be creative. Come up with as many possible solutions as you can think of. Some of your ideas will be impractical, but don’t judge them at this stage. For example, if you’re having problems with classmates (check bullying and personal safety for more) there are lots of different approaches you could take. Write them all down, even if some of them seem off the wall.
  • Eliminate bad options – cross out all the ideas on your list that are unrealistic or not likely to be helpful.
  • Evaluate what’s left – go through the remaining options and write down the pros and cons of each. For example, being rude to the classmates giving you hassle might help you let off steam (which is positive), but it could also make the situation worse (which is negative). Whereas being nice to them in spite of their put-downs could make you feel frustrated (which is negative) but it might change the way they respond to you (a positive outcome).
  • Identify the best options – once you’ve considered the positives and negatives for each possible solution, it’s time to make a decision. Go through the options and pick out the ones that seem the most potentially helpful. There may be one option that stands out. If there are a few possible solutions you might be able to implement all of them.
  • Implement the best options – put your ideas into practice. A trial-and-error approach can help you test possible solutions until you find the right one.
  • Evaluate the results – after a solution has been reached, it’s important to evaluate the results to see how it’s working out. This evaluation might happen right away, like checking the results of a math problem to make sure the answer is correct, or it can happen later, such as evaluating the success of an exercise program after a few weeks of trying it.

Problem solving usually helps us find solutions, but sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we still can’t fix the situation. If you’ve tried a number of strategies and none of them have worked, it could be time to focus on coping strategies.

Developing coping strategies

Coping strategies help us accept situations beyond our control. They can help us feel better even when the problem still exists. Coping strategies you can use include:

  • Challenging negative self-talk – check self-talk for more.
  • Getting involved – throw yourself into some enjoyable activities in order to take your mind off your problem.
  • Talking to people you trust – they can help you accept what you can’t change.
  • Using relaxation techniques – check relaxation for more.
  • Distracting yourself – literally change the subject mentally by thinking about other things instead of the problem.

There isn’t very much we can do about some problems in life. Things like our height, our age, most of our physical features, and the family we were born into are beyond our control.

There are also things that have happened in the past that we can’t change, like an exam we failed, an argument we had, or the loss of someone close to us. What’s happened has happened, and we can’t change the past.

The best way to deal with situations we can’t change is to practice acceptance. This means accepting the way things are without insisting they should be different. It means deciding to get on with life in spite of the situation.

Problems are a normal part of life, and we usually feel better when we do something about them instead of just dwelling on them. But, if you can’t solve the problem, it’s helpful to change the way you think about it – to practice acceptance and move on with life in a positive way.


We all make decisions every day. Some have a short-term impact, for example, deciding what to wear to a party. Other decisions can have a more long-term impact like what you do when you leave school or college.

Making a decision isn’t always easy.  To make sure you get the outcome you want, consider all the factors. Some suggestions on making decisions:

  • Identify unhelpful behaviour – think about how you normally behave when you make a decision. If you get stressed, excited or anxious, you’re making it more difficult for yourself to make a good decision. The more emotional you are about it, the more likely you are to make an impulsive decision that may not work out. Try to keep a clear head when you’re making important decisions.
  • Give yourself time – don’t rush your decision. Even once you’ve made it, you might want to hold off on acting upon it, to be sure you’re happy with it. Sometimes you’ll have to make a decision quickly which can be difficult. But it’s still possible to adapt some of these suggestions to the timeframe you have.
  • Explore the risks – making a change can involve losses as well as gains. For example, when someone chooses to leave home, they might lose their home comforts and parental support, but they’ll gain increased independence and freedom. If it helps, write down a list of the pros and cons for each possible alternative.
  • Explore goals and values – your values and goals can help you make a decision.  For example, the subjects you choose at school or college will be influenced by the goals you have for after you finish your education. Likewise, who you choose to start a relationship with might depend on your values. These may change over time, so you might need to re-visit your decision when this happens.
  • Examine alternatives – there can often be several possible outcomes to a decision, not all of which are obvious. Write a list of the options, listing the positives and negatives of each. Consider how you feel about the options. What’s your gut feeling?
  • Talk to people – talk to people you trust about the potential consequences of your decision, particularly people who’ve been in similar situations.
  • Keep a diary – you might be feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of making your decision, so keeping track of how you feel can help you stay focused.
  • Let others know – if you’re worried about someone’s reaction to your decision, think about how you’ll manage the situation before telling them. Also, make sure to give them advance warning if the decision affects them personally. Check telling someone big news for more.
  • Maintain your commitment – once you’ve made your decision, you might feel pressure to backtrack on it, perhaps from people who don’t agree with you. Take their views on board and if you think there’s merit in their arguments, consider following their advice. However, if the decision still feels right to you, stick to it. The important thing is making the choice that’s right for you.

This article was last reviewed on 05 November 2018

What can I do now?

Follow us on Facebook