The Top 3 Problem-Solving Therapy Approaches for Adults

In Education, Mental Health, Wellness by Courtney ArcherLeave a Comment

When trying to solve a specific problem that is causing you some grief, problem-solving therapy approaches for adults can be an amazing help. Even if you are not exactly sure what your problem is, just that you have one you would like some help with, problem-solving therapy is a great way to work on it.

Not every problem requires therapy to solve it, of course. Big or small, there are a lot of problems that we are perfectly capable of figuring out ourselves. You would not have made it this far in life if you were not able to solve at least a few of your problems.

But some problems can be pretty complicated. Especially problems that affect our relationships with ourselves and others. If your view of the world, yourself, and/or others is making it difficult for you to function the way you want to, it might be helpful to pursue problem-solving therapy approaches.

You might find yourself making similar mistakes repeatedly, and want to figure out why that is. Or maybe you have realized that you have some unhelpful patterns that are straining your relationships. Maybe you just do not feel happy or like your life, and you want to change that.

Whatever the reason you have decided to look into problem-solving therapy approaches for adults, you are guaranteed to learn more about them here. We will discuss what they are, how they are different from other therapy approaches, and which problem-solving therapy approach might be the right one for you.

problem-solving therapy approaches

Problem-Solving Therapy Approaches for Adults

What is Problem-Solving Therapy?

Problem-solving therapy is therapy that is meant to solve specific problems. It is structured, present-focused, and usually time-limited.

If you thought that is what all therapy was about, you were right to some degree. Therapy is supposed to help people work through their problems and increase their quality of life. However, different therapy approaches go through this in different ways.

Some counter-examples of problem-solving therapy are psychoanalytic and humanistic therapy. Psychoanalytic therapy focuses on one’s early childhood experiences to try to understand one’s current experience. It is not time-limited, and some people do it for years.

Humanistic therapy, on the other hand, focuses more on the present and not so much on past experiences. In this way, it can be more like traditional problem-solving therapy, but it is not usually as targeted or time-limited. Simply put, humanistic therapy focuses on the person rather than the problem.

There are pros and cons to every therapy approach. So many different kinds of therapy have been developed because different people find different things helpful. This article is about problem-solving therapy approaches for adults, though, so that is what it is focused on.

These problem-solving therapy approaches can be used for children too, they just are not as nuanced as some other more child-focused therapy approaches. That being said, let’s discuss what problem-solving therapy approaches are and how they work.

Photo with definition of problem-solving therapy approaches.

How Problem-Solving Therapy Approaches Work

As mentioned above, problem-solving therapy approaches target specific problems, focus on the present, and tend to be time-limited. Generally speaking, problem-solving therapy approaches take between 8 and 12 sessions. If you go to therapy weekly, that means you could have things settled within 2 to 3 months.

Given that insurance can be pretty stingy with covering therapy, saving some money is definitely a valid reason to pursue problem-solving therapy rather than something else.

Problem-solving therapy approaches are also great when you know what your problem is and want to figure out how to resolve it. You do not have to have a specifically defined problem for problem-solving therapy to be helpful, though. Therapists are trained to help you narrow in on what is causing the most distress in your life and how to go about addressing it.

Therapists who utilize problem-solving therapy approaches will work with you to identify the problem at hand and to figure out a game-plan to address it. Typically, problem-solving therapy is a collaborative effort between you and your therapist. Rather than telling you what to do, your therapist will listen to and work with you to figure out what solution makes the most sense for you.

Homework is pretty typical with problem-solving therapy approaches for adults. One weekly hour-long session with a therapist has a hard time making a difference to the other 167 hours in the week without some follow-up on your part. Some therapists will give you things to think about or consider during the week, while others will give you actual worksheets to fill out in between sessions.

Problem-solving therapy approaches can still work without the homework, but it may affect how long they take to be effective. Do not worry, though, this homework is not the busy work of high school and college. It is targeted to help you very specifically with the things you are working on, and therefore relevant and helpful rather than burdensome or tiring.

That does not mean people love it, it just means that it tends to be worth the time and effort it takes to do it.

Photo with info about how therapists help with problem-solving therapy approaches.

The Top 3 Problem-Solving Therapy Approaches for Adults

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, operates under the assumption that our thoughts guide our emotions and behaviors. The goal of CBT is to identify which thoughts are causing problems so that you can change them. The idea is that if you can change your thoughts you can change your behavior.

For example, if a person walked into a party and everyone stopped talking the second they walked in, they might think, “everyone was talking about me.” This thought causes them to feel self-conscious, maybe even rejected. Because of this, they leave the party and miss out on a fun night.

CBT would suggest that they take a look at why they immediately thought that everyone was talking about them. A common exercise would be to provide evidence for and against the thought. The only thing they know for sure is that everyone stopped talking the second they entered the room.

That might be their evidence for their thought that everyone was talking about them, but they would likely be able to come up with some evidence against it as well. A great way to do that would be to ask someone who was at the party what was happening when they walked in.

When the thought is shifted from “everyone was talking about me,” to, “I don’t know what was happening,” the emotion shifts from rejection to curiosity. Curious about what is happening, the person stays at the party instead of missing out.

CBT can also help with repetitive negative thoughts like, “no one likes me,” or, “I never get anything right.” A CBT therapist will help you examine your unhelpful thoughts so that you can replace them with new thoughts that do not limit you as much.

Homework is common with CBT because it gives you a way to track your thoughts and how they influence your emotions and behaviors. The more you can pick up on what your thoughts are and how they affect you, the more you can modify your unhelpful thoughts and behavior.

Photo with info about CBT.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, is heavily influenced by CBT. However, where CBT focuses heavily on thoughts, DBT focuses more heavily on emotions and behavior.

You have probably experienced some extreme emotions in your life at one point or another. Whether it was extreme sadness, anger, disappointment, rejection, etc., we all experience extreme emotions from time to time. Extreme, meaning all-encompassing and impossible to reckon with.

DBT is designed to work with those all-encompassing emotions that can lead to troubling and unhelpful behaviors. It is common in DBT to start with the unhelpful behavior and work backward through the events that led up to it to identify the triggering events and emotions that led up to it.

For example, if a person threw and shattered their phone because they were angry, DBT would suggest that they take a look at what happened before this event. They would identify the moment their anger started brewing, what happened that made it escalate, and when they started throwing and breaking things. They would also identify what the function of throwing their phone was.

All behavior, even troubling behavior, has a function. Throwing the phone could have been a way to communicate how angry they were, or a way to punish themselves for feeling angry, or something else entirely. Whatever the function, figuring it out can help with finding another solution.

Doing so helps identify opportunities along the way where the person could have used some coping skills to keep their emotions at a workable level. Homework is also common with DBT to help people identify what is triggering them and what they can do to work with their emotions instead of their emotions controlling their behavior.

Photo with info on DBT.

Solution-Focused Therapy

Solution-focused therapy (SFT) is a little different from the other two problem-solving therapy approaches. It is exactly what the name says it is–solution-focused rather than problem-focused. Rather than dwelling on the problem and where it came from, SFT focuses on what you would like your life to be like instead and how to get there.

A classic technique that therapists who use this approach utilize is the “miracle question.” Basically, they ask a person something to the effect of, “If you woke up tomorrow and your problem was gone, how would your life be different?”

The therapist and the person would then explore how the person would feel, how they and the people around them would act, and how they would know that their problem was gone. Typically the next step would be to figure out what the person could do to bring their life in reality more in line with their life in the miracle world.

An example of this could be a person responding to the miracle question by saying, “I would know my problem was gone because I would feel like doing the things I used to enjoy.” After getting a clear picture with a few more details, they would work together to come up with a solution that would help the person work toward their goal of enjoying life again.

While SFT does sometimes have homework, it is often less structured than the homework of CBT and DBT. It is all about figuring out what works for people and doing more of that, rather than sticking strictly to a cause and effect type narrative.

Photo with info on SFT.

The Best Problem-Solving Therapy Approach for You

All of these problem-solving therapy approaches for adults have a lot of research and evidence to back them up. They have been proven over time to effectively reduce symptoms of poor mental health.

Most people figure out which problem-solving therapy approaches work for them through trial and error, by going to therapy and realizing that they do or do not like the approach the therapist is using. However, a little consideration beforehand might help you figure out what kind of therapist to choose beforehand.

Consider yourself and the problematic experiences you encounter. If you can identify any unhelpful thoughts that seem to be getting you in trouble time and time again, CBT is probably a great choice for you.

On the other hand, if you find that you are often overwhelmed by your emotions and that this is negatively affecting your life, DBT might be the right choice. Overwhelming emotions are often a result of trauma, which DBT is very conscious of and can help with. If your life has included some traumatic events, that might be another indication that DBT could be helpful.

But if the idea of doing homework makes you uncomfortable and you know that you probably will not do it, SFT might be a better route to go. You might also choose SFT if you like the idea of focusing on solutions rather than problems.

You can find a therapist at Psychology Today. When you click on a therapist’s profile, there is a section that lists the types of therapy that they provide. Often therapists are trained in each of these problem-solving therapy approaches, which makes it easy to let them know what your preference is.

Photo with info on how all problem-solving therapy approaches can be helpful.

In Conclusion

Problem-solving therapy approaches are well-known and heavily utilized for the benefits they provide. If you are interested in therapy that is structured, focused on the present, and time-limited, problem-solving therapy is likely a good fit.

If you are interested in reading more about any of the problem-solving therapy approaches before you begin therapy, you might try the following books:

Unfortunately, SFT is still new enough that there really are not books or workbooks for non-professionals readily available yet. Rest assured that it has been around long enough to be tested and proven, just not long enough that people have made a ton of self-help books for it.

The books listed are great supplemental resources, but they are not replacements for therapy. If you are experiencing problems that are reducing your quality of life, please check out Psychology Today to find a therapist who can help you address them.

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