From the iCope book series by Anthony R. Ciminero, Ph.D.

By this time you have had some practice at increasing your awareness of your stress level, relaxing your body when you are under stress, and talking rationally to yourself in order to keep things in perspective. Even when you are coping well using these methods, there will be many stressors that require further action in order to deal with them effectively. Whenever a stressor requires more extensive and deliberate action on your part, it is safe to assume that the stressor has now become a problem. In reality, many stressors are on-going problems.

Clearly, problems can range from relatively minor events such as not finding your keys or wallet to potentially serious events such as an accident or illness. Recognizing that many stressful events can be viewed as problems could help you handle the situation more effectively. First, some problems will be resolved successfully and there will be definite relief from the stress. For example, finding your lost keys or wallet, or having someone bring you gas for your car will lead to fairly quick reductions in stress. Another reason it helps to look at stressors as problems is that every problem has certain options or alternatives that can help alleviate (not necessarily eliminate) the stress due to the problem. This is especially relevant for more serious problems. Having confidence that you can and will use good problem solving abilities will be helpful in managing your stress. Before we get into problem solving strategies, we first need to dispel some myths about problems.

Myth #1. There is a perfect solution for any given problem. If you tend to believe this, you will probably be very frustrated with how you handle any problem. There are no perfect solutions. Certainly, there are some alternatives that will be better and more effective than others. The goal of problem solving is to find the alternatives that help you cope effectively with the problem.

Myth #2. Sometimes there are problems for which there are no alternatives to help cope with the situation. It is true that some problems are “unsolvable” in the sense that the actual events can never be changed (such as the death of a loved one), but there are always options to cope with the problem. We need to avoid telling ourselves that nothing can be done to deal with a particular problem. There are always alternatives and we can learn to be more creative in identifying and selecting positive strategies. The eventual goal here is to develop an “active coping style” where you automatically begin to process your options when confronted with a stressor.

Myth #3. We must be 100% certain which options are best before deciding how we want to approach the problem. This belief leads to considerable indecisiveness because we are seldom 100% sure of a decision. Often there is some ambivalence or uncertainty regarding the choices we make. One aspect of good problem solving is to be able to accept whatever level of ambivalence or risk that goes with our decisions. If an error is made, we can go back and reevaluate the situation and make new choices.

Myth #4. The faster you solve a problem the better the outcome. It is likely that responding too quickly or impulsively will not be very effective. This is in direct contrast to the desire for 100% certainty. Usually there is a middle ground approach where you take enough time to process your alternatives, but not so much time that you end up avoiding any final decision about how to deal with your problem.


The five basic steps to creative problem solving are rather easy to learn. Many of us have already learned our version of this through our handling life experiences with the help of parents, friends, teachers, or spiritual leaders. However, like other stress management skills, it takes practice with many different types of problems to become proficient enough for the procedures to seem automatic to you. As we describe these steps in problem solving you are likely to see some things that you already do and other things that you are not doing. If you need improvement in problem solving try to follow all the steps. In the beginning it is best to actually write down your options. Later, you can process most situations mentally without writing all the details. Although you can learn to process many problems within a reasonable period of time, it will take longer to evaluate significant problems that are difficult to handle.

The basic steps in problem solving are:

1.         Define the problem as specifically as you can.

2.         List several alternatives to help you solve the problem or at least cope with the problem.

3.         Think of the positives and negatives of each option.

4.         Select the best combination of options to develop an active plan for dealing with the situation.

5.         Put the plan of action into effect and evaluate its outcome.

Step #1.  Define each problem as specifically as you can. Try to focus on one problem at a time.

The following is a poorly defined problem: “I’m really upset with my best friend.”

A slightly better defined problem might be: “My friend often does things that aggravate me.”

An even more specific problem could be defined as: “This is the second time this month that my friend cancelled our weekend plans at the last minute.”

Your friend in this example might very well do many things that are aggravating. Your friend might be very irresponsible in general and create many problems on a day-to-day basis. How you approach this situation will depend on how you define the problem. If you are trying to come up with appropriate alternatives for the friend’s “general irresponsibility” as opposed to the immediate need to deal with your frustration and disappointment, you will most likely come up with different options to deal with the two different problems.

Step #2. List several alternatives to help cope with the problem.

Whenever you confront a problem begin to think of alternatives that could be implemented. Avoid at all costs the thought that “nothing can be done.” Be as creative as possible in generating your ideas. If you think of an alternative, write it down and fully evaluate it later. If you do not generate alternatives that later seem unacceptable to you, it is likely that you are not being as creative as you could be.

Step #3. Rate each of your alternatives.

Look at each of your options and think of its pros and cons. This will help you select the more positive alternatives and enable you to design an effective action plan. Initially you might want to rate each alternative with the “four star” system on the work sheet. This is a little more time consuming now, but will help you with future problem solving efforts when you are not using the work sheets.

Step #4. Select the better alternatives to design an active plan to cope with the problem.

Sometimes one alternative is sufficient to deal with the situation effectively. However, it is quite common to combine two or three options to formulate your solution. Obviously these action plans generally will be a combination of your better alternatives.

Step #5. Put your plan into action as soon as you can.

Your problem solving skills will not be useful unless you follow through by implementing the plan and evaluating its success. Since we are not perfect at this skill, it is expected that some action plans will not be very effective and will require modification. If a plan is not working satisfactorily, go back to your initial step and repeat the process. You may find that the problem was not defined properly or that other alternatives need to be generated. You also will have new information that might change your ratings of the alternatives already generated. By practicing the five steps regularly you are likely to notice that you automatically begin the problem solving process when you encounter new stressors.

Blank work sheets that you can use to record your own problem solving efforts are available for downloading at Using the work sheets is only temporary and eventually you will only want to use it for fairly significant problems. The more routine stressors can typically be handled by mentally processing the information.

Serious problems cannot be processed in a minute. These situations will require longer periods of deliberate thought about the problem, issues, and alternatives. Talking to others to help you formulate a plan is certainly helpful at these times. However, the basic philosophy and principles that suggest that even though you cannot change certain events (e.g., death of a loved one, an unwanted end of a relationship, or a traumatic event, etc.) you can generate options that will help you cope with those events is still of utmost importance. This keeps you psychologically in a healthier frame of mind and helps prevent feelings of hopelessness.

To use your problem solving skills on a regular basis, remember:

  • Focus on the specific problem being confronted.
  • Remind yourself that there are alternatives over which you have some control.
  • Maintain an active coping style and avoid telling yourself “nothing can be done.”
  • Avoid impulsive actions, looking for the perfect solution, or 100% certainty.
  • Mentally process your options and put a plan into action.
  • Stay flexible. If your action plan is not successful, reevaluate the situation.