Strategies for getting in problem-solving frame of mind for the anxious!
May 10, 2018 9:51 AM   Subscribe

When confronted with any kind of problem these days, I seem to instantly hit rock bottom. What can I do in the moment to enter problem-solving mentality?

I struggle with anxiety (often ruminating, often involved around perfectionism.) Lately in particular, it seems that when I'm faced with a problem, I instantly go into major meltdown catastrophizing. I know I should probably seek out therapy, but that's not in the cards right now. I'm looking for things to do in the actual moment of freaking out to turn from "HOW COULD I HAVE DONE THIS I AM A COMPLETE IDIOT AND TERRIBLE PERSON?" to "Let's see, how can we fix it? Isn't this funny?"

Often this occurs over little things. For example, I just paid someone an exorbitant price to wallpaper my kids' tiny, dark room. (Here's the wallpaper, not that it matters -- I was going for this.) Oh my God, it's awful! Everyone warned me it would be too much in a small room, and it is. When I saw it, I literally wanted to gouge my eyes out I felt so dumb, and immediately tabulated the hundreds of dollars we can't really spare to do this. It just ruined my day and I can't even think of solutions. I just made myself and everyone around me upset.

Is there anything you say or do in these moments to get yourself back on track?
posted by heavenknows to Human Relations (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Exercise, preferably pretty hard, if possible. Jumping jacks, walking fast uphill, etc. Regular exercise helps me stave off anxiety in the first place.
posted by lazuli at 10:29 AM on May 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

While I was spiraling about a situation that was outside of my control once, a wise friend suggested that I stop and imagine for a moment I was not the first person in the world ever to have this happen to them. I was kind of indignant in response -- of course I wasn't the first person in the world ever to have this happen to me. Which was exactly his point -- these kinds of problems can seem intractable and overwhelming, but honestly, other people have had them and other people have dealt with them.

Now, when I find myself in a spiral about a problem I stop and think back to that conversation and it helps me clear my head and reframe my thinking. My problems are problems, yes, but they are solvable problems.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:31 AM on May 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have to ask--are you exaggerating about literally wanting to gouge your eyes out? Because if you are serious, then you need to someone soon.

If you are being a bit hyperbolic, take this same advice that I learned a long time ago: there are no problems, there are only opportunities. Sometimes, the only opportunity I get after screwing up is learning not to do that thing again. But more often than not, I can see where I screwed up and be grateful that I have a chance to learn from it.

Seems like you need to do basic reframing. Okay, you screwed up the wallpaper. What are the opportunities here? Learning to now hang small samples before committing to an entire room? Learning if chalkboard paint will work over wallpaper which will give the kids an opportunity to have a really cool room? Learning that kids are generally fairly easygoing about their rooms and you've done a job raising nice kids?

You need to try to find the opportunities every time you mess up. Life is crazy that way--we hardly get these chances to learn stuff unless we screw up first. Embrace the possibilities. And sometimes, the only opportunity from a mistake is a simple lesson to never do that thing again.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:34 AM on May 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh this is so helpful already -- very glad I asked this today.

I didn't necessarily mean "literally" -- what I mean is that in my head I am gouging my eyes out, bashing my head against a brick wall beating myself over the head with a bat. I have no interest in actually hurting myself, but that definitely is the brain imagery which is why I said "literally."
posted by heavenknows at 10:42 AM on May 10, 2018

As an aside, that wallpaper is gorgeous! It may not have been the perfect choice for your room, but I totally get why you picked it. And yes, breath, do jumping jacks, and know that you are a human being who, like the rest of us, is allowed to make mistakes. Many mistakes. And you are strong enough to cope.
posted by Gnella at 10:45 AM on May 10, 2018

I like that wallpaper.

My solution to problems I'm catastrophizing is to set an alarm for 2 minutes and jot down some solutions. Send pics to friends if needed. Usually after about 10 minutes of forcing yourself to problem-solve, a few solutions will arise. In this case, here are the solutions I'd probably try, in this order:

1. Remove as much clutter as possible from the room to give the eyes a break.

2. Make the bed with white or plain pale sheets & blankets.

3. Tonight at bedtime, lie in bed with your kid and gaze at the wallpaper and play "eye spy" or talk about the different kinds of flowers and see how your kid likes it.

I bet after step #3, you'll like it much more and won't need to do any of the more labour / cash / time intensive fixes:

4. Tone it down by hanging a couple of large, serene, inexpensive things on the wall to cover part of the pattern with solid colours. Maybe buy a very large canvas, paint it white or a pale blue that matches the wallpaper, and throw some gold leaf on it- like this- then hang it on the most noticeable wall to cover some of the pattern.

5. Continue to live with it for one month. Change sometimes requires adjustment.

6. Paint 1, 2, or 3 of the walls in a solid coordinating (light) colour to hide the wallpaper, perhaps leaving it only on one "focal" wall (maybe the wall behind the headboard).
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:57 AM on May 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

I’ve started keeping a note on my phone of the things that calm me down. Why? Cuz in the moment anxiety is high, I really struggle to identify those things.

So I have places I can go if I’m able to leave (coffee shops have a weirdly strong calming effect on me) a place in my house that’s cozy and has little clutter, and then a list of things that help, like certain videos. I also find getting out of my own head and talking to a friend helps. So does journaling. Often times I sit down with a notebook and write out my anxieties exactly as they appear and that calms me down super fast. Not always, but often.

Going for a walk almost as soon as it starts can help too. It depends, but usually it throws my mind into a different state.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:06 AM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I find the Serenity Prayer to be very helpful as a starting place to get out of freak-out mode and into problem-solving mode.

For example, in thinking about what you can't change about the situation, you might need to come to terms with the fact that the wallpaper is probably there to stay, since you mentioned you can't really afford to have it redone.

So then you need to think about what you CAN change, if anything. I was thinking along similar lines as pseudostrabismus... you need to break up that pattern with some non-busy pictures, furniture placement, or something. I like their canvas idea a lot. Or possibly you could look into a large wall decal, or a couple of big posters that are visually more quiet.

I will say one thing about changing your decor, you may be surprised how quickly you get used to it and it no longer looks strange or overwhelming. There are a number of things in my apartment that bugged me visually at first that I no longer even notice.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:10 AM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I find it helpful to imagine what some other, supremely competent person would do in my situation. So with your decorating dilemma, I might imagine what Martha Stewart would do on a budget. She would probably say "Oh well, that's too bad. I'll save up over the next six months to get it redone in something else." Or she might say, "I guess I'm stripping wallpaper this weekend and painting instead of going to brunch and yoga."

My point is, pick somebody you think would know what to do and imagine it. It helps create some distance between you and your feelings.

(Also, as an anxious person who has done renovations, give any visual change like this at least a week to adjust to. I think something about the anxious brain is particularly adverse to change.)
posted by purple_bird at 11:21 AM on May 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

That is attractive wallpaper, and I bet you like it better after you've gotten used to it.

But in general, here's what popped out at me from your description of the problem: I'm looking for things to do in the actual moment of freaking out to turn from "HOW COULD I HAVE DONE THIS I AM A COMPLETE IDIOT AND TERRIBLE PERSON?" to "Let's see, how can we fix it? Isn't this funny?"

If you leave aside the change in emotional valence (the ALLCAPS and so on), the problematic thought is regretting the unchangeable past, and the useful thought is planning for the future. Do you think consciously conceptualizing it like that might help? That while it's perfectly possible that you're a complete idiot and terrible person, that doesn't get you anywhere with your wallpaper, so if you want to deal with the wallpaper you have to look forward, not back. Trying to lighten up on yourself because you don't deserve the abuse is a hard thing to do, but I've found it helpful to think of that kind of recrimination as just unproductive, so if there's a real problem I need to look at solutions rather than blame.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:41 AM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]


I guess you already know this is counterproductive, or else you wouldn't be asking this question! I practise reframing, calmly and methodically, when I am spiralling out of control. I will sometimes need to repeat it a few times to myself, before it "takes." I don't just read it or think it, I actually say it, word by word, and slowly. I always make sure to say the lesson I learned.

In your case, I might say:

--I am a caring, thoughtful person who wanted to make my kids' room nicer.
--I made a creative choice and it didn't look as good as I wanted.
--My kids still have a nice room in a warm, dry house.
--I may have risked too much money on this project, and I wish I hadn't.
--I feel sore about the money, but it's gone now and I can make more.
--I made the choice I thought was right, based on what I knew at the time.
--Now I know better and I will be careful next time with money and with the design choice.
--I will call John[*], who thought this print might be too busy for the space. He has great taste and he might have a cheap solution for me to tone it down.

[*] Must be sympathetic person who will help you laugh at yourself, but not shame you.
posted by cranberrymonger at 11:44 AM on May 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Is there anything you say or do in these moments to get yourself back on track?

"I've lived this long with my decision-making. I will continue to live with this decision. Given that I will not die. How can I move forward."

And I have a specific sort of buyer's-remorse anxiety like you describe which I am used to by now. And I have to tell myself "I am spending a lot of money on this. I will hate it for three days guaranteed. This is my issue, not anyone else's."

Getting older means my memory for this sort of stuff fades more quickly and it's easier to distract myself into not obsessing over it. Stuff like exercise and laying off the caffeine helps. Having a partner who is like "Hey I know you're upset, but this is sort of you doing that THING again so we're not going to spend an hour flipping out. Let's do a five minute freak out and get on with our lives?"

And if therapy is not in the cards, think about medication potentially? Even an as-needed short acting benzo could at least put the kibosh on this obsessive whirlpool you are stuck in (standard disclaimer, they are not for everyone). It's not a long term solution but it will, in some cases make the pain stop. Same with other "self medication" like a drink, joint or whatever. Not a good long term plan but can sort of hit your reset button. This is no way to live. I've been there.
posted by jessamyn at 12:02 PM on May 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

A thing that helps me when I have one of these types of spirals is to 1) go for a walk or exercise a little, 2) think a little bit about why the thing upsets me so much, and 3) brainstorm ways of fixing the thing that upsets me completely separate from the thing that kicked off the sprial. So, like, I extensively messed up the name of a new colleague that I think highly of recently, and after I'd had a walk to calm down, the main thing was that I didn't want him to think that I didn't think well of him. I couldn't undo the stupidity, but I could do a nice work-thing for him to demonstrate that feeling with my actions, and I spent some time coming up with mnemonic so I WILL NOT MESS IT UP AGAIN SO HELP ME. I felt way better after all this, even though I'm still embarrassed about the faux pas. (I have an anxious kid and we do versions of these with him too, in an effort to get him to eventually be able to do them himself.)

In a case like the wallpaper, the thing that might be the real kicker is wanting to take care of your family, or wanting to have a nice house, or not having money to waste. There are low-ish-cost ways of dealing with all of those even if you never get used to the wallpaper and do redo it in your next pricey project.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:55 PM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this. Lately I've found it help to realize that the anxiety isn't really about the situation at hand. Sometimes it's because I think the bad situation is a referendum on my worth and competence as an adult human being; sometimes it's because I'm in a bad mood or need a snack or had an upsetting conversation or am worried about a relationship.

Basically, I treat myself like a toddler having a meltdown over a toy. As a bonus, it helps me not take myself nearly as seriously.
posted by toastedcheese at 1:29 PM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

My therapist taught me to ask "who will die?" when I start catastrophizing. If the answer is no one, then it's not a big deal. Easier said than done, but it certainly helps.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 2:47 PM on May 10, 2018

Sometimes tossing it to the kids can help - they have their own perspectives, and you may not yet be aware that it’s the perfect scenery for a Boykin-animal safari. Plays, puppet shows, improv & pretend are great kids activities.

If the kids are ok/happy that can be enough lateral movement to keep your feet on the ground in parental moments. It is entirely possible your kids will be bragging on the wallpaper when they are grown. No one does that with beige. A curtain rod or a clothesline between hooks with long solid color drapes? Giant flip-chart post-its as a drawing area with washable markers (age dependent)

And for any home improvement, appreciating that something is new, you might feel differently in a week when it’s routine, and the jolt of newness has worn off. So, remind yourself you have time to re-assess. A lot of us have done that with renovations. A fair amount of the 1970’s left my house when we re-did the kitchen and there were 3 layers on top of that!
posted by childofTethys at 2:47 PM on May 10, 2018

I haven't any advice for how to get rid of those thoughts altogether, though I'm taking note of the replies, but I have found it helpful when in that state of mind to try and keep it to myself rather than bring others into it right away while in panic mode. Not many people know how to handle another person's anxiety well, and it often seems to just make the situation worse or prolong it when you express it to another person. I've found keeping it to myself and trying some self-soothing techniques to be quite diffiult in the moment, but if you can manage it, it does help get from the catastrophic phase into the self-depreciating humor phase pretty fast and from there, problem solving yourself or with others becomes much easier.

As for the wallpaper, you should be able to paint over it. Not all of it, but if you choose even one wall, try picking the wall that seems the most overwhelming/chaotic visually, and paint it white, it should break up the "small room" feel of too much on the walls. If you can't do this, try a plain white bedspread or duvet cover, or closet door, and white curtains or install a wide white baseboard and crown molding; this should brighten and break up the space enough that it may not feel like a mistake once you get used to the change.
posted by OnefortheLast at 3:51 PM on May 10, 2018

I have similar anxieties to you. Sometimes what really helps me is to tell myself (even out out loud) that it's my anxiety talking and it's okay to ignore those thoughts.

If you're having trouble making a decision, or agonizing over a decision you made, I think understanding the Paradox of Choice is really helpful (I read some of the book and it was very helpful). The TDLR that I got was that there's no "perfect" option out there for any given choice. Every additional possibility you consider brings up more criteria to consider, and it just makes you more crazy. It's totally okay to just pick a criterion and go with it. You might later decide that you didn't like your choice and you should have considered different criteria, but you made the best decision you could at the time.
posted by radioamy at 4:24 PM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

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