Stressed Out About a Problem? Try the Focus-Shift Trick.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 06, 2012
5 min read

You've spent hours trying to figure out how to break the bad news to your friend. After obsessing all day and missing a night of sleep, you still don’t know how to tell your friend that you have to cancel your long-awaited Saturday plans.

Now your heart is pounding, you feel as physically drained as if you've just run a marathon, and you're nowhere near a solution.

Getting caught up in a problem isn't just frustrating -- it can literally stress you out. When you're stressed out, it's harder to think clearly. Emotional stress can send your problem-solving skills into a tailspin.

"When we're under a great deal of stress, we're not in a good position to think most clearly and creatively and come up with our best problem-solving skills," says Stephen Fabick, EdD, clinical and consulting psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Mich.

Fabick says people who are really stressed out about a problem tend to obsess over it. They become so overly focused on the problem that it leads to anxiety, but no solution.

The pattern becomes a self-destructive cycle, one that can have not only immediate, but long-term effects on your emotional and physical health. "Prolonged stress can lead to more chronic physical problems and even a shorter life," Fabick says.

In studies, people who rate themselves as less effective problem solvers and who don't have good stress coping skills are more likely to be in poor health. They're also more likely to be depressed.

Instead of dwelling on a problem you can't solve, get your mind off it for a while. Shift your focus. "It really is best to get a break from it, and that can be done in a variety of ways," Fabick says.

The purpose of shifting your focus is to temporarily get your mind off whatever challenge has it tied up in knots. "Disengage from whatever is so stressful, and then come back to it," Fabick recommends.

Here are a few tricks that will help clear your mind and return you to problem solving refreshed and renewed:

  • Choose something mindless. Play solitaire on your computer. Watch a funny video online. Clean out your refrigerator or organize your office filing cabinet. Give your brain a rest, and you'll have a clean slate for when you come back to problem solving.
  • Switch gears. Instead of doing something mindless, another option is to do something mindful to get your brain occupied -- but in a different direction. Work on a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, or read a chapter of a thought-provoking book. The goal is to occupy yourself with a pleasant task, which provides the energy to regroup later.
  • Walk away. Literally. Take a break from whatever you're doing and go outside for a walk. Exercise not only reinvigorates your body, but it also sends oxygen-rich blood surging to your brain. Research suggests that exercise might even trigger the growth of new brain cells. You’ll feel better after the physical activity, and the original problem will seem more manageable.
  • Take a breather. If you're really worked up over a problem, what you need is some stress relief. Try whatever works for you, whether it's yoga, deep breathing, meditation, prayer, or just having a good laugh with a friend.

Whichever shift-focus technique you decide to use, don't spend all day doing it. About 10 to 20 minutes is all you need to reboot your brain. Distract yourself for too long, and you may never want to go back to problem solving.

If you've tried every trick on the list and your mind is still stubbornly stuck on your problem, here are a few quick fixes to try:

  • Phone a friend. A friend or family member could be your lifeline when you've got a seemingly insurmountable problem to tackle. "Use them as a sounding board," Fabick advises. If you trust your friend's judgment, they may give you some perspective on how to deal with the problem, he says.
  • ‘Reframe’ the problem. One coping technique you can try is to switch to a more positive point of view. For example, if you are stressed about a new project you're working on because you think your boss never respects your ideas, try coming to the realization that every manager is different and that you might have more success taking your suggestions to another manager, Fabick suggests.
  • Write it down. When a problem is weighing you down, you can get into a cycle of unproductive, repetitive thinking, says Fabick. Writing down the problem is a way to help you see it more clearly. Journaling is one way of doing it, but he also suggests trying a technique called hot pen. You put your pen to paper and, without lifting it, write everything you can think of about the problem. Then you review and organize what you wrote. Hot pen is a good way to vent, and it can help you reach a kind of clarity on a difficult issue, Fabick says.
  • Mentally rehearse. Not sure how to navigate your way through a problem? Do a run through with a friend or in your head, just as you'd rehearse a speech you were nervous about delivering. Think about how you'd like to approach the problem or conversation, what your ultimate goals are, and what you definitely don't want to happen. "When you're prepared you're going to be a lot less anxious about it. That should reduce the amount of unproductive ruminating you do," Fabick says.
  • Ask for help. Get input from a trusted psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor. If the problem is work-related, ask your company about bringing in a conflict resolution specialist to help mediate the dispute or help you identify new ways to approach the problem. Your employer may also offer an Employee Assistance Program, also called an EAP. EAP programs often feature low-cost or no-cost assistance and referrals to trained therapists. Some EAPs offer a few free counseling sessions as well.