22 Apr

Strengthening Problem-Solving Skills as Therapy, for Better Mental Health and Resilience – With Practical Instructions

Problem solving as a way to psychological stress relief and more optimism

Often, the real problems of everyday life are a main cause of mental stress and illness, which can manifest through a wide variety of symptoms.

One way to relieve psychological stress can be to change our attitudes, beliefs and thoughts related to our problems, so that we perceive them as less stressful. This approach can become especially important when we ourselves have little or no influence on a situation and when a solution to the problem is momentarily out of our hands.

Another effective way to relieve stress can be to systematically develop realistic solutions to our problems, plan solution strategies and then implement them practically step by step. In this way, real problems and thus their stressful effects are reduced. Often, however, the awareness alone of being able to develop a realistic plan for solving problems is enough to effectively reduce fears, to stop worries and negative thought carousels and to be able to look to the future with fresh hope in a more positive and self-confident way. The higher the level of problem-solving competence, the greater the sense of control and security, which can lead to more serenity and inner peace.

Specific strengthening of problem-solving skills in psychotherapy

The specific strengthening of problem-solving skills is used within the framework of various psychological interventions and therapy methods. For example, it is one of the standard intervention techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The development and strengthening of problem-solving skills is also used as an independent therapy method called problem-solving therapy (PST).

Pragmatism, effectiveness and the ease in which it can be learned are listed as advantages of this intervention technique in the therapeutic setting (cf. Pierce, 2012).

Effectiveness of promoting problem-solving skills as a therapeutic method

Problem-solving therapy has proven to be an effective form of therapy for the following mental illnesses and symptoms, among others:

  • Depression (Bell & D’Zurilla, 2009; Mynors-Wallis et al., 1995; Mynors-Wallis et al., 2000).
  • Anxiety disorder (Mynors-Wallis, 2005; Seekles et al., 2011).
  • Self-harming behaviour and suicidality (Hatcher et al., 2018).
  • Hopelessness (Hatcher et al., 2018).
  • Substance abuse (Sorsdahl et al., 2015).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (Bedford et al., 2017).
  • Chronic stress

Problem-solving therapy can also be a great help for those affected by stressful life and crisis situations, such as loss of a job, death of a loved one, problems in marriage and family, divorce, financial hardship, etc.

Develop your problem-solving skills: a practical guide

In the following I have summarised for you a basic and simple strategy for a systematic reduction of stressful problems:

Step 1: List all the problems that bother you and rate them as either “solvable” or “unsolvable”. Unsolvable” are those problems over which you have little or no influence with the resources you currently have.

Step 2:Choose a “solvable” problem to start with. Make sure that at the beginning of the development of your problem-solving skills, you choose a problem that seems simple or solvable enough for you to be able to reduce it relatively easily and quickly. As your skills and resources develop, more difficult problems can be tackled over time. Be aware that the ability to solve problems effectively is also related to our current skills, strengths and resources. Give yourself the necessary time and chance to grow and become stronger in your problem-solving ability. This does not mean remaining inactive in the face of your problems. Resources and strengths that may be lacking at the moment can be sought, found and developed in a targeted way.

Step 3: Analyse the selected problem. Which of its aspects can you influence and/or control? Is it easier to divide the overall problem into smaller sub-problems that you can work on one at a time? Think of eating an elephant: piece by piece, bite by bite.

Step 4: Brainstorm and think of as many possible solutions to your problem as possible. Do not evaluate these options and strategies yet, just collect and note them down. Consider not only your personal strengths and possibilities, but also external resources that may be available to you in the society in which you live, through your fellow human beings and through institutions. Take your time for this step so that you can reflect in peace. You can also do some research and use the ideas of other, possibly more experienced people. It is often amazing how many realistic options we can collect if we only take it seriously once.

Step 5:Evaluate the potential solutions and strategies collected. What are the advantages and possible disadvantages of each option? How realistic and easy is it to implement? How effective and helpful is it likely to be? Then select the best options and strategies for solving your problem. It can be one or more options.

Step 6: Create an action plan. Which option or strategy do you start with? What is the first, practical step? What are the next steps? How and when exactly will you carry out the steps of your solution strategy in practice? Write down the date and time as well as the specific step. Use tools such as a calendar, spreadsheet, weekly planner, reminder function, etc. to do this. If necessary, ask someone to remind you. The first step is the most important. Take it seriously. Do it.

Step 7: Check your success. Have you been able to stick to your plan? If not, why not? What was the difficulty? What can you do to stick to it better in the future? If yes: what effect did the step have on you and/or the problem? Are you going in a good and positive direction? Have you come closer to solving the problem? How big is the relief you have experienced? What have you learned for your next step?

If you find it difficult or impossible to solve your problems on your own, consult a competent therapist or counsellor if possible. They are also an (often important) resource, that you can use.

Also remember: practice makes perfect. Good luck!

C. Muhammad Kasprowicz


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