Worrying Versus Problem-Solving

Identifying Solvable Worries

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When dealing with any degree of anxiety, people often think that worrying is the same as problem-solving. In fact, they could not be more different.

Worry is a negative thought spiral that, in the case of someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), can feel completely out of control. Worrying typically involves getting lost in a mental thought loop of worst case scenarios. Anxiety prevents the worrier from thinking clearly through what he or she would actually do if the (often unlikely) feared outcome were ever to happen.

Worry focuses on things that have not yet happened, but is basically a passive process that is unhelpful and unsuccessful in producing possible solutions if they did happen. Essentially, worry leaves a person unprepared, without a plan to deal.

In contrast, problem-solving is an active and constructive thought process centered on how effective, and sometimes flexible, resolution of an issue. It involves thinking clearly about how to define the problem and thinking creatively about how to deal with it. Solutions are brainstormed and evaluated. The best solution is used to develop a specific plan – often calling upon a few different potentially helpful strategies – that can be put into action, evaluated and tweaked as needed. Bottom line: problem-solving is practical and (good news!) it can be learned.

What kinds of worries are solvable?

A solvable worry is a current problem, or likely outcome, that you can do something about.

If the issue you are concerned about is not realistic, or if it’s a far-in-the future prediction over which you have little control, then unfortunately it’s not truly solvable worry. An unsolvable worry may respond better to interventions such as challenging its premise or letting it go, even briefly, by applying relaxation.


Examples of unsolvable worries are:

  • My parent could become seriously ill.
  • Something terrible could happen on my next flight.
  • We might never be able to buy a house if interest rates keep going up.
  • My daughter may become friends with a group of girls who are a “bad influence” on her.

Examples of solvable worries include:

  • I have more work to do this semester than I can handle.
  • My son does not listen when I discipline him.
  • My partner and I don’t agree on where we’d like to live.
  • Business has been slow, so I won’t be able to pay my monthly expenses.

Now that you’ve slowed yourself down and have begun to sort yourself out, it’s time to target a solvable worry. Before you can get to solutions, you might try to refine your statement of the problem as much as possible. Restating the issue in terms that are specific and objective – focusing more on what you know than what you feel – is a critical step in problem-solving.

The solvable worry described above, “I have more work to do this semester than I can handle,” might be reformulated to “I have two major exams and three papers that are longer than anything I’ve written before to complete by the end of this term.” Notice that the latter statement is more specific about the actual workload and less judgmental about one’s ability to do the work.

Once you’ve clarified which of your worries might actually be solvable, and put it in terms that will help you to address it, you will be one sizable step closer to tackling the problem.


Wright J.H., Basco M.R., & Thase M.E. (Eds.) (2006). Learning Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Core Competencies in Psychotherapy Series (Series Ed.: Gabbard, G.O.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

Beck, J.S. (1995) Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guilford Press

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