Florent Malouda scored his first league goal for more than two months to send the faltering champions back into the top four and ease the pressure on manager Carlo Ancelotti.
Didier Drogba also hit the post but was forced to clear off the line as Bolton had more than enough chances to snatch a point.
Chelsea's first league win in seven lifted them back to within four points of leaders Manchester United, who have a game in hand.
Despite his side having thrown away a five-point lead in the last two months, Ancelotti retained the backing of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich ahead of tonight's game.
The Russian would not have liked what he saw from his Caribbean retreat as the Blues struggled to string two passes together in a miserable first half at a sodden Stamford Bridge.
They did not manage a single shot on target and of the two they did muster, one of them was a Drogba free-kick that embarrassingly screwed out for a throw-in.
Bolton were typically combative and John Terry needed to produce a desperate challenge to prevent Kevin Davies stealing in, while Matthew Taylor drilled wide after latching onto the recalled Jose Bosingwa's attempted clearance.
Branislav Ivanovic was booked for felling Johan Elmander and Chelsea's frustration increased as captain Terry harangued referee Michael Jones after the official elected not show Paul Robinson a yellow card for a foul on Michael Essien.
Taylor sent a sweet left-foot curler narrowly over as Bolton continued to look the more threatening and there was more bad news for the home side when Drogba began limping.
The striker played on as Chelsea began to wrest a semblance of control and Taylor was booked after clattering into Ramires.
But the home side were not even close to a goal before being booed off by some of their fans at half-time.
They looked no better in the opening four minutes of the second half until, out of nowhere, Frank Lampard produced a wonderful defence-splitting pass for Drogba, whose finish hit the inside of the far post and was cleared to safety.
Chelsea suddenly looked a different side and Nicolas Anelka was flagged narrowly offside racing onto Ramires' through ball before they finally put together a sweeping passing move that ended with a tame Essien finish.
The pressure finally told in the 61st minute when Essien released Drogba down the right and the striker squared for Malouda to tap home his first league goal since October.
The jubilant celebrations from both fans and players told their own story but Chelsea's confidence remained fragile and Sam Ricketts blazed over from 12 yards as Bolton hit back.
Stuart Holden then had a handball appeal turned down after smashing a shot at Terry inside the box.
Sensing blood, visiting boss Owen Coyle withdrew Rodrigo Moreno - impressive on his full Premier League debut - for Ivan Klasnic after his side were awarded a free-kick.
Gary Cahill - a reported January target for Chelsea - immediately headed Taylor's centre wide.
Bolton went even closer when Elmander's cross was met by a bullet header from Holden, forcing a wonderful tip over from Petr Cech.
The goalkeeper made a hash of the resulting corner and was grateful to Drogba on the line for clearing the danger.
At the other end, Essien thought he had bundled the ball over the line in between Bolton's final two substitutions but the flag had already gone up.
Malouda was denied twice by Jussi Jaaskelainen late on before Ancelotti ran down the clock by introducing Salomon Kalou and Paulo Ferreira in the closing seconds.