Can Problem-Solving Therapy Help With Managing Life’s Challenges?

Problem-solving therapy is rooted in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and focuses on the present issue at hand more than in the past. It’s often a brief intervention, working to solve the most pressing problem. It aims to improve overall quality of life and reduce mental health symptoms by equipping people with the tools they need to tackle issues themselves, fostering resilience and self-reliance.

What is problem-solving therapy?

Problem-solving therapy (PST) takes a results-oriented approach to managing issues. PST is rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and can also be referred to as problem-solving brief therapy (PSBT).

It’s growing in popularity thanks to evidence showing it can effectively treat a variety of health and mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and chronic disease management. With PST, the goal is to tackle the most pressing problem and help people learn how to manage difficulties on their own.

Each person is viewed as a unique whole, not a label or diagnosis. There isn’t a belief that there is something wrong with a person that needs 'fixing.' Instead, it takes a very personalized and solution-oriented approach to help manage each person’s unique challenges.

What makes problem-solving therapy so different?

Unlike other therapy models, PST doesn’t open every door to every problem or painful memory a person has in an attempt to find a root problem. The goal is to resolve the most pressing issue as effectively as possible — which is what can make it brief.

Strategies are based on current behaviors and interactions. Effective implementation of specific problem-solving behaviors is a major treatment goal.

Another important note about PST is that it can be helpful for relationship difficulties between couples or families. While many therapists ask to see both people in a couple or the entire family, PST therapists work to disrupt patterns through just one member.

How does problem-solving therapy work?

With PST, you and your therapist will work together to:

  • Clearly define the most pressing issue.
  • Learn what behavior is maintaining the problem.
  • Set small, manageable action goals that break the pattern.

Change can come more quickly when we focus on trying something new. Of course, intervention strategies all depend on the issue at hand and what would work best for each individual.

Is problem-solving therapy really effective?

Several meta-analyses show that PST is effective for varying conditions, with many studies focused on depression in particular. It’s also been shown to work for anxiety and different health conditions, such as cancer.

Within 6–8 sessions, you may notice a difference in the problem presented. For someone who can’t commit to lengthier treatment with a professional, PST can be a good option.

For people with more serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, additional treatment may be helpful. In general, the best method of therapy can vary per person and depends on your particular concerns.

What conditions work best with PST?

PST can help with various mental disorders and daily struggles, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Chronic stress
  • Eating disorders
  • Daily life stressors
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Self-harm or suicide ideation
  • Emotional distress
  • Chronic disease
  • Addiction

It can also work for managing life’s difficulties, such as divorce, job loss, financial problems, and weight management. With a focus on goal-setting and stress management techniques, you can learn how to develop healthier habits to better manage future difficulties as well.

Finding the right therapist

If you’re wondering how this therapy can work for you, look for a PST or PSBT therapist online or in person. For example, you can look for therapists who hold a problem-solving brief therapy diploma. The cost could be anywhere from $100–250, depending on your location and the therapists' experience. Check with your insurance provider to find a PST therapist, as it may be covered.

Above all, feeling comfortable with your therapist and as though you have a connection is essential. You’ll work together to clearly define the issue and what a measure of progress would look like.

In general, if you’re not seeing progress with your current psychologist and you’re feeling frustrated, it might be time to break up with your therapist. You can experiment with different methods and people to see who you feel most comfortable with. Within a few sessions, you should feel as though you’re on the path toward progress.

Common myths about PST

If you’re wondering about how PST compares to other therapeutic methods, here are the myth-busting responses:

PST doesn’t work for complex issues

PST breaks down complex psychological issues and works on them in manageable parts. It focuses on the behavioral side to manage current problems or symptoms. Even people who have struggled for years with the same issue can benefit.

PST provides instant solutions to complex problems

PST offers manageable strategies that begin measurable progress on the most pressing issue at hand. Keep in mind that no matter the therapy, you have to put in the work. It’s not about instant solutions but tools to address issues more effectively and efficiently.

PST is less effective than medication for mental health issues

PST and medication serve different roles in the management of mental health symptoms and issues. For some, PST might be enough on its own, while others may benefit from a combination. It all depends on the individual situation — everyone is unique.

PST is the same as giving advice

PST is not merely giving advice. It’s a collaborative process where the therapist and client work together to identify the problem and potential solutions. Therapists foster independence and self-efficacy so that they’re not needed for the long term.

Only psychologists can provide PST

Several different types of trained mental health professionals can offer PST. This includes social workers, counselors, mediators, and coaches.

PST is not suitable for children or the elderly

This therapy model is adapted to each individual and the system they live within. This includes children and the elderly, with modifications to suit their cognitive and emotional development levels and needs.

PST ignores past traumas

Rarely does any therapy method completely avoid past traumas. PST acknowledges whatever is brought to therapy and works through it with the client. It balances the fine line between letting out the past and knowing when it’s time to help the client start working on moving forward. This helps avoid over-analyzing or letting the client stay stuck ruminating without progress.

PST compared to other methods

Below is a comparative table outlining the differences between problem solving therapy and other therapeutic methods, providing a clear overview to help you understand their unique approaches and benefits.

Therapy typeMain focusIssues it helps withEffectivenessAverage cost per sessionAges
Problem-solving therapy (PST)Developing practical problem-solving skills to manage current issuesAnxiety, depression, stress, relationship difficulties, eating disorders, life transitions, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, addictionHigh for specific issues$100–250All ages
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)Emotional regulation, mindfulness, and improving relationshipsBorderline personality disorder, self-harm, suicidal ideation, substance abuseHigh for specific conditions$100–250Adults and adolescents
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)Accepting what is out of personal control while committing to action that improves and enriches lifeAnxiety, depression, stress, chronic painHigh for specific conditions$100–250All ages
PsychoanalysisExploring unconscious thoughts and feelings to resolve 'deep-rooted' issues and childhood traumasPersonality disorders, chronic depression, identity issues, complex griefVariable$150–300Adults

In the end, PST can offer a practical approach to managing life's challenges and work for a wide range of issues and age groups. By focusing on the present and empowering people to develop their own solutions, PST can lead to meaningful and long-lasting change. Whether you're facing relationship difficulties, mental health conditions, or daily stressors, PST provides tools to navigate life's obstacles — both in the present and the future.

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