The problem with problem thinking

Guest contribution by | 01.09.2022

How to get out of problem thinking and get your energy back

If I had to name one particularly energy-sapping habit that I observe in many people, it would be problem thinking. At the beginning of the cooperation with my clients there is always a stocktaking, the impact analysis. We look at what effect our behaviour has in different situations in our daily work. On our well-being, our motivation and performance, on our productivity and cooperation with others. Positive and negative.

When it comes to negative impact, problem thinking is right up there. However, I have yet to meet anyone who did not have this damaging habit. Including myself.

In this article, I will take a closer look at problem thinking and its negative effects. What triggers lead to problem thinking and how you can recognise them. And at the end, you will get three recommendations to get out of problem thinking and get your energy back.

What is problem thinking?

By problem thinking, I don’t just mean the worrier who is visible to everyone, who torpedoes and rejects new solutions in meetings. The one who constantly nags and always finds the fly in the ointment. That is certainly part of problem thinking, but it is only the tip of the iceberg that is visible to others.

Problem thinking goes much deeper, because the whole scale is far greater.

I am referring especially to the pejorative, judgmental self-talk that is invisible to others and often unconscious to ourselves as well. The negative thought loops that get going when we are under pressure or have made a mistake. That rob us of our inner peace, our composure or even our sleep, often without us even being aware of the underlying cause in the respective situation.

What happens when we get stuck in problem thinking?

When we are stuck in problem thinking, something has set these negative thought loops in motion. Problem thinking is an inner programme that is automatically started when certain things happen:

  • When my boss casually slaps more tasks on my desk. Without asking me what else I have to do.
  • When my whole day is filled with meetings that seem to produce little or no results and keep me from doing my actual work.
  • When I have to prepare a lot of documents for a decision-making process, but in the end no one looks at them very closely.
  • When I see the 50 new e-mails waiting in my inbox in the morning to be processed.

In one of my projects, I once had to deal with a head of department who acted like the famous alpha dog. All this man had to do was enter my office and I started to get worked up. “What outrageous demand does he have in store now?” Immediately I remembered numerous unpleasant experiences with him and before I said anything I was already at one hundred and eighty.

The triggered thoughts

With the trigger, the next stage of problem thinking is automatically initiated: my negative, pejorative thoughts on the situation:

  • They can’t be serious about asking me to do this.
  • I’ll never be able to do it in such a short time.
  • Actually, I should refuse, but I can’t afford it.
  • Can I even do that? I’m not good enough for that yet.
  • If only I had said or done this or that in that situation, none of this would have happened.
  • No one supports me. I always have to do everything alone.

The negative thoughts are followed by corresponding unpleasant feelings such as anger, rage, frustration, powerlessness, fear, anxiety or resignation. We feel an inner pressure, feel like we are being driven. Or frustrated and somehow exhausted.

This unpleasant mixture of negative thoughts and feelings pulls us under its spell. We have the feeling that we cannot stop it. We cannot react appropriately because we lack the energy. If we even notice what is going on inside us. Because it is all so familiar to us that we consider it normal and do not even consciously notice it.

Problem thinking keeps us trapped in the problem

Problem thinking is extremely problematic because it keeps us trapped in the problem instead of leading us out of the problem. That’s why we often move so little and make no progress, even though we think so much about our problem, analyse it again and again. On the contrary, we get more and more entangled in our problem.

Problem thinking never leads to a solution, but deeper and deeper into the problem.

Problem thinking leads to exhaustion, aggression, rigidity, paralysis, closedness and detachment. You can observe this in your own life as well as in the people around you. We even observe it much more easily in other people.

I would argue that problem thinking is the root of many other problems and the lack of energy and motivation in our lives. Because if you sow anger, resentment, frustration and powerlessness in yourself with your thoughts, you can never harvest joy, motivation, drive or confidence. That is simply impossible.

It is a vicious circle that builds up. The longer and more intensively you think about the problem, the harder it is to get out of the trap of problem thinking. The more energy you have to muster to overcome anger, frustration or powerlessness.

I don’t know what problems you are currently dealing with and how much time and energy this costs. But I do know one thing: if we learn to change the automatism of problem thinking, then we have eliminated one of the biggest energy guzzlers in our lives.

Three recommendations in dealing with problem thinking

# 1: Recognise problem thinking and its harmful effects

The first step is to recognise that you are currently stuck in problem thinking and where it will lead you if you do not stop it. Especially habits that we have had for a long time reinforce this stuckness.

Perhaps you remember an “unpleasant” situation last week. Become aware of your thoughts. What influence did the situation have on your well-being, your energy, your motivation, your productivity and your further actions?

Problem thinking can lead to the most diverse effects in our everyday life: One person makes himself small and invisible, another puts himself under permanent pressure, a third stirs up fear and insecurity within himself and does not even get into action. A fourth rushes through his everyday life as if driven. Driven by his problems.

Take a close look at these situations and the effect of problem thinking. Only then can you tackle your individual triggers in a targeted way and turn them off.

# 2: Come to peace and take away the problem’s effect

One of the characteristics of a problem is that we attach a very high, often even threatening importance to the problem. The effect of this can be ever-increasing inner turmoil, worry, fear or powerlessness. How can you defuse the effect of the problem? The simplest strategy, and a very effective one at that, is conscious and calm breathing.

Because with conscious, deep and even breathing, you bring your nervous system into balance. Your body comes to rest and relaxes. As a result, your mind also relaxes. Your perception opens up again.

Here is a tip from me if you are very agitated: Breathe out longer than you breathe in. So count from one to four when you inhale, and from one to eight when you exhale. Your exhalation correlates with the calming branch of the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system. You thus reinforce the calming effect of your breathing.

It may not work immediately in every situation. But with a little practice you can achieve great effects very quickly. Be sure to try it out.

# 3: Have positive strategies ready and implement them

If you don’t have a positive strategy at hand when thinking about problems, it is difficult to get out of this deeply ingrained habit of problem thinking. Often your mind keeps bringing you back into the problem loops as soon as you want to stop it. Under stress, conscious thinking is severely limited, so you almost certainly cannot think of anything you could do alternatively.

That’s why it makes sense that you have thought about how to get yourself back into a good, positive energy beforehand. What works well and easily for you. For the moment when you realise that you are currently stuck in a problem loop and want to end it.

To do this, make a list of different items, which will quickly and safely put you in a good mood. Then you can immediately take countermeasures. Maybe listening to a certain piece of music will help you. Or thinking about your last holiday or a nice event. Maybe a cup of coffee or tea will help. Or a walk around the block or even just the way to the photocopier. Let your imagination run wild and write down everything that comes to mind.

The positive feelings associated with these things will quickly bring you back into a good energy. Provided you take the few minutes and put them into practice. Whenever you notice that you are stuck in problem thinking.

Get your energy back for the things that really matter to you. I assure you, your life will improve significantly as a result.



Martina Baehr has published a very interesting German book on 5 strategies for more energy at work. Here you can download the book for free.

In addition to the book, Martina Baehr also offers a free check-up on goal clarity in German. Clarity gives you orientation, decision-making power and confidence to act. And this clarity is certainly worthwhile!

If you like the article or want to discuss it, feel free to share it with your network.

Martina Baehr has published other articles on the t2informatik blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Success factor emotional competency

Success factor emotional competency

t2informatik Blog: The power of the subconscious

The power of the subconscious

t2informatik Blog: More success with composure

More success with composure

Martina Baehr
Martina Baehr

Martina Baehr is a work and organisational psychologist and owner of Project Management plus - with the right mindset for project success. As a project supervisor and mindset coach, she supports her customers in building their inner strength. So that they act from their full strength and bring their projects to success in a relaxed manner. In her German mindset blog she writes about new thinking, emotional intelligence, intuition and value-adding cooperation.

Martina Baehr has worked in various medium-sized companies as a project manager and department head for internal process and systems consulting, and has more than 15 years of experience in managing large reorganisation and IT projects.