How Mood Effects Problem Solving

If you’re unable to find solutions to the problems that crop up in your life, the issue may not be that your problems are unsolvable.  It’s possible that negative emotions like fear, sadness, anger and shame are interfering with your ability to see clearly, make decisions and attempt different resolutions. 

Excessive negative emotion can narrow your attention, cause you to ruminate and make you feel out of control.  It can cause a negative outlook, an inability to focus and avoidance of problems.  When a problem is complex and is not solved by immediate action (like fight or flight), negative emotion obstructs problem solving.

Problem solving, cognitive flexibility and mood are inextricably linked. Positive mood facilitates cognitive flexibility, while negative mood narrows our thinking and outlook.  Expect that problem solving will go more slowly and be more difficult when you’re highly emotional.

Flexibility is related to the ability to actively choose strategies that fit your goals, are adaptive, creative and relevant.  Flexibility requires us to move beyond automatic and habitual ways of seeing the world and open up to new ways of thinking. We must work from a presence of mind that enables us to be effective.  Our solutions must respond to the world as it is, not as we think it should be.

There are several immediate techniques to get into a state of mind more conducive to problem solving:

  • Try deep breathing.  Inhale while counting (1, 2, 3…) and then exhale, while counting.  Try to increase the length of you inhalations and exhalations.
  • Breathe with a mantra.  Try saying to yourself: "Mindfully breathing" as you breathe in and as you breathe out, say "Letting go of X …" (X is anxiety, tension, anger, judgments, perfectionism, etc.).
  • Notice your thoughts and judgments.  Judgments activate extreme emotions.  In order to better manage emotions sit quietly and notice your automatic thoughts and judgments.  Don’t respond to your thoughts, just notice what you are thinking.
  • Try describing the situation using just the facts.  Eliminate any judgmental words, such as should, shouldn’t, good and bad from your description.
  • Focus entirely on the current moment’s activity, rather than splitting attention among several activities and thoughts.

If you have important problems to solve, you might first need to manage your emotions.  A calmer state of mind allows you to clarify the situation and see new solutions.

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