What is problem-solving therapy?

Problem-solving therapy (PST) is a form of psychotherapy. It may help you develop coping skills to manage upsetting life experiences.

“It’s the notion of focusing on the problem in the moment as opposed to psychodynamic therapy, which focuses on both the problem and the underpinnings,” explains Jaine L. Darwin, Psy.D., a psychologist and psychoanalyst in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

PST is also known as:

  • short-term therapy
  • problem-solving treatment
  • structured problem solving

If you have depression and your doctor suspects that it stems from everyday life problems, they may recommend PST. This therapy may help you develop strategies to resolve those problems. In turn, it may relieve your depression symptoms.

Your doctor may recommend PST if you have depression. It may also help you manage other mental conditions or situations, such as:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • deliberate self-harm
  • interpersonal relationship problems
  • unhappiness at work or home

During PST, your therapist will teach you how to use a step-by-step problem-solving process. They will help you:

  • identify problems
  • come up with several realistic solutions
  • select the most promising solution
  • develop and implement an action plan
  • assess how effective the problem-solving attempt was

Your therapy will likely include:

  • psycho-education to teach you skills to cope with depression
  • interactive problem-solving exercises
  • enhancing communication skills
  • motivational homework assignments

PST typically involves eight to 16 sessions. It can be delivered by a therapist during one-on-one or group sessions. You may also receive PST in a primary care setting from a general practitioner, such as your family doctor. Your insurance might cover some of the treatments.

There are three general types of problem-solving therapy:

  • Social PST: Your therapist will help you identify solutions to everyday problems in social settings. You will learn how to adapt to different situations, rather than use a single coping strategy.
  • Self-examination PST:Your therapist will help you determine life goals, assess barriers to your goals, and apply problem-solving strategies to achieve them. They will also help you learn to accept uncontrollable situations.
  • PST for primary care settings: A primary care physician will provide your PST.

Problem-solving therapy may help you manage the symptoms of depression. But it probably won’t provide a cure on its own.

“With problem-solving therapy, you identify a circumscribed problem and together figure out behavioral or actionable strategies,” explains Jeffrey L. Binder, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Argosy University in Atlanta. “Depression, in general, would be too broad a problem. You’d have to identify a particularly negative symptom or set of symptoms of depression or a particular environmental circumstance that is contributing to or causing the problem. The therapy is focused on very concrete problems.”

Ask your doctor for more information about PST. They can help you understand the potential benefits and risks. They may encourage you to combine PST with other treatments, such as medication. They may also recommend other forms of therapy.