‘It’s the layers,’ my friend said to me as we pondered on my rising stress levels ten weeks ago. ‘Yes, your health issues are at the root of things, but it’s the layers of problems and stressors that are building upon this. Let’s address them.’

The next day I found myself giggling with another friend about my Mille Feuille musings. ‘I am like a French pastry,’ I said to him. Layered and layered with problems so that if you add even a small raspberry to the top I will crumble and cave. It’s the age-old scenario when you drop a mug and burst into tears – it’s rarely the broken crockery that’s at the root of the upset, it’s just the final straw in a pile of building-up anxieties.

So what to do when life is weighing you down and you feel like you can’t cope with one more thing going wrong or demand your (rapidly waning) problem-solving skills? I have a colleague who has a box theory – it always makes me smile. His theory is that you have to put each problem into a box, keep all your boxes separately, and only open each box one at a time, deal with it and then close the lid before moving onto the next. ‘What if you are a worrier like me?’ I asked. ‘You have to contain your boxes Sally, keep them separate.’ It’s a piece of good advice and I like the theory, but I found it hard, since I am far too emotional and each problem would hijack my mind so that before I knew it the culmination of all of them together felt far too much. Hence, Ian’s box theory of course.

As many of you, know much of the work here at the Happynesshub is about building our resilience in the good times, so that when the more challenging times hit we have the inner resources and tools to cope. But depending on circumstance, this can still be a hard nut to crack. We know that stress can be a positive if moderate and temporary, but when it starts to become harmful is when it is prolonged and overwhelming. There is much written about our perspective on stress being the important factor – whether we see an adverse event as a threat and one we do not have the coping strategies to deal with, or whether we perceive it as a challenge, react positively, and perhaps see an opportunity to create change and even be in ‘flow’.

So back to my Mille Feuille. Despite all of my Happynesshub work, I became conscious that the layers really were mounting and my tasty pastry slice was turning into a mountain of multiple layers that towered frighteningly above. So I decided to look up problem-solving to see if I could learn anything new, and amongst the many thousands of articles and cognitive theories that cropped up, this simple approach resonated with me:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Define and understand the problem
  3. Form a strategy
  4. Organise information
  5. Allocate resources to solving the problem
  6. Monitor progress
  7. Evaluate the results

Now, this may sound rather business-like in its approach, but in combination with Ian’s boxing strategy, I decided to tackle each problem one-by-one and come up with a comprehensive and achievable plan to each, attaching a time-line to the resolution. Now, I have to admit this got me a good deal of the way, and given my personality type of loving a good plan, it felt a great deal better to be able to visualise my progress moving forward. But if I’m honest, this was not enough. I was in too deep and I realised I needed help – and this was where my very special and trusted friends and family members stepped in. Like guardian angels, they took some of the problems away from me, and shared thoughts and coping strategies with me about those they couldn’t remove. They supported me in breaking down the layers. They practically stepped in, helped formulate the journey, kept me on track and picked me up when I felt overwhelmed. Gradually, my confidence grew back, and with their help every step of the way, each problem got tackled and some have been wholly resolved. So we dealt with internal and external together. I was not alone.

So as I write to you from the skies en route to Corfu, I have great gratitude. And relief. I have moved forward. I have problems solved. And I am becoming a better problem-solver too.

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”

Louisa May Alcott