Salene M. W. Jones Ph.D.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Solving problems the cognitive-behavioral way, problem solving is another part of behavioral therapy..

Posted February 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

  • What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
  • Find a therapist who practices CBT
  • Problem-solving is one technique used on the behavioral side of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
  • The problem-solving technique is an iterative, five-step process that requires one to identify the problem and test different solutions.
  • The technique differs from ad-hoc problem-solving in its suspension of judgment and evaluation of each solution.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, cognitive behavioral therapy is more than challenging negative, automatic thoughts. There is a whole behavioral piece of this therapy that focuses on what people do and how to change their actions to support their mental health. In this post, I’ll talk about the problem-solving technique from cognitive behavioral therapy and what makes it unique.

The problem-solving technique

While there are many different variations of this technique, I am going to describe the version I typically use, and which includes the main components of the technique:

The first step is to clearly define the problem. Sometimes, this includes answering a series of questions to make sure the problem is described in detail. Sometimes, the client is able to define the problem pretty clearly on their own. Sometimes, a discussion is needed to clearly outline the problem.

The next step is generating solutions without judgment. The "without judgment" part is crucial: Often when people are solving problems on their own, they will reject each potential solution as soon as they or someone else suggests it. This can lead to feeling helpless and also discarding solutions that would work.

The third step is evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of each solution. This is the step where judgment comes back.

Fourth, the client picks the most feasible solution that is most likely to work and they try it out.

The fifth step is evaluating whether the chosen solution worked, and if not, going back to step two or three to find another option. For step five, enough time has to pass for the solution to have made a difference.

This process is iterative, meaning the client and therapist always go back to the beginning to make sure the problem is resolved and if not, identify what needs to change.

Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock

Advantages of the problem-solving technique

The problem-solving technique might differ from ad hoc problem-solving in several ways. The most obvious is the suspension of judgment when coming up with solutions. We sometimes need to withhold judgment and see the solution (or problem) from a different perspective. Deliberately deciding not to judge solutions until later can help trigger that mindset change.

Another difference is the explicit evaluation of whether the solution worked. When people usually try to solve problems, they don’t go back and check whether the solution worked. It’s only if something goes very wrong that they try again. The problem-solving technique specifically includes evaluating the solution.

Lastly, the problem-solving technique starts with a specific definition of the problem instead of just jumping to solutions. To figure out where you are going, you have to know where you are.

One benefit of the cognitive behavioral therapy approach is the behavioral side. The behavioral part of therapy is a wide umbrella that includes problem-solving techniques among other techniques. Accessing multiple techniques means one is more likely to address the client’s main concern.

Salene M. W. Jones Ph.D.

Salene M. W. Jones, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Washington State.

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problem solving behavior therapy

Problem Solving Therapy: PST in 3 Steps

  • December 18, 2021
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Problem solving therapy is a psychotherapy that focuses on the cognitive and emotional processes of an individual with the aim to solve their problems. The aim of this blog post is to explore how it works, who can benefit from it and what are its benefits. Problem solving therapy is a cognitive behavioral therapeutic approach that focuses on the present and future rather than the past.

Problem Solving Therapy  Steps

problem solving therapy

What is Problem Solving Therapy?

Problem solving therapy is a cognitive-behavioral technique intended to enhance an individual’s ability to deal with traumatic life events. The premise of problem solving therapy is that people cannot change what has happened, but they can learn to accept it and take control of their life.

Who developed Problem Solving Therapy?

Problem-solving therapy was developed by Jeffrey Young in 1987 as an integration of cognitive psychotherapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, and developmental theories such as Piaget’s theory of moral development.

Regardless of the time, the existence of a problem is often perceived as troubling. The problem is, in the most general sense, “the differences and obstacles between the current situation and the desired situation” (Nezu, Nezu and D ‘Zurilla, 2007).

According to D ‘Zurilla, Nezu, and Maydeu-Olivares’, who suggested the concept of social problem solving based on the fact that a human being is a social entity, the problem is “when a person needs to react to adapt in case of any life situation or task that needs to be accomplished. It occurs when there is no obvious or obviously effective response depending on the presence of obstacles. In fact, the problem arises when a person makes a “mistake in showing the effective and appropriate response” or “a difference between what he is currently in and what he wants to be”.

problem solving

The existence of a problematic situation inevitably requires an effort for a solution. Therefore, the problem situation requires coping, dealing with obstacles, and more effort and especially change. In other words, it is necessary to act and change in order to reach the desired situation from the current situation. Changing can also be perceived as a difficult and disturbing process. At this point, people’s problem-solving styles may differ, whether effective or ineffective.

problem solving therapy: pst in 3 steps 1

D’Zurilla and Nezu (1990) define social problem solving as the cognitive, affective, and behavioral process that the individual attempts and produces to find an effective way to cope with problem situations in daily life.

The main purpose of problem solving therapy is to teach people how to approach the problems they face and the strategies they will follow to solve the problems. From this point of view, problem solving therapy aims to both treat mental problems caused by the failure of the problems and prevent the occurrence of psychological problems.

problem solving therapy: pst in 3 steps 2

Problem-solving therapy recognizes that any problems we experience are part of our lives. We can be sick at any moment, lose someone we love, be abandoned by our beloved, be fired from our job, be humiliated by others, suffer injustice. So the dream of a smooth world is unrealistic. The important thing is how we deal with them rather than the existence of problems.

The main starting point of problem solving therapy is that the problem solving skills of people who have mental problems are not sufficient and effective. Problem solving therapy, which is a cognitive-behavioral therapy model, focuses on the thoughts and behaviors of people. This method acknowledges that functional changes in thoughts and behaviors will be effective in the treatment of psychological problems.

problem solving therapy: pst in 3 steps 3

Problem solving therapy is a cognitive-behavioral method. The importance of this is that the effectiveness of therapy has been proven by experimental studies. Scientific studies have shown that the inadequacies of people in their problem solving abilities are effective both in forming and maintaining psychopathologies. Therefore, problem solving therapy can be used both to overcome psychological problems caused by the problems experienced and to effectively deal with the problems.

Why Do We Need Problem Solving Therapy?

Some people may find it difficult to solve problems on their own, which can lead to frustration, anxiety, and even depression. Problem-solving therapy is a type of talk therapy that can help people learn how to solve problems in a healthy way.

The therapist will work with the patient to identify and understand the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, select the best solution, and put the plan into action. This type of therapy can be helpful for people who have difficulty coping with stress or who are dealing with a major life change.

Working with a therapist is beneficial because they will have access to tools that allow them to find the root causes of the problem. 

There is also often a misconnection in early childhood that leads people to seek this type of therapy which, again means they’re less likely to try and self-solve their own issues.

Effectiveness of Problem Solving Theory

Problem-solving therapy was created to assist customers to solve problems and improve their lives. It was later modified to focus on treating clinical depression specifically. Today, the majority of the research on problem-solving therapy is concerned with how effectively it can help people get over sadness.

Problem-solving therapy has been shown to help depression in: 

  • Elder people
  • People coping with severe illnesses like cancer

Problem-solving therapy has also been found to be beneficial as a brief therapy for depression, with benefits seen after just six to eight sessions with a therapist or another healthcare professional. This may make it an appealing alternative for those who are unable to commit to a longer depression treatment.

Last Updated on December 10, 2022 by Lucas Berg

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What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

problem solving behavior therapy

Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.

problem solving behavior therapy

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change the destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on their behavior and emotions.

Cognitive behavioral therapy combines cognitive therapy with behavior therapy by identifying maladaptive patterns of thinking, emotional responses, or behaviors and replacing them with more desirable patterns.

Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing the automatic negative thoughts that can contribute to and worsen our emotional difficulties, depression , and anxiety . These spontaneous negative thoughts also have a detrimental influence on our mood.

Through CBT, faulty thoughts are identified, challenged, and replaced with more objective, realistic thoughts.

Everything You Need to Know About CBT

This video has been medically reviewed by Steven Gans, MD .

Types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT encompasses a range of techniques and approaches that address our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. These can range from structured psychotherapies to self-help practices. Some of the specific types of therapeutic approaches that involve cognitive behavioral therapy include:

  • Cognitive therapy centers on identifying and changing inaccurate or distorted thought patterns, emotional responses, and behaviors.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)  addresses destructive or disturbing thoughts and behaviors while incorporating treatment strategies such as emotional regulation and mindfulness.
  • Multimodal therapy suggests that psychological issues must be treated by addressing seven different but interconnected modalities: behavior, affect, sensation, imagery, cognition, interpersonal factors, and drug/biological considerations.
  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) involves identifying irrational beliefs, actively challenging these beliefs, and finally learning to recognize and change these thought patterns.

While each type of cognitive behavioral therapy takes a different approach, all work to address the underlying thought patterns that contribute to psychological distress.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques

CBT is about more than identifying thought patterns. It uses a wide range of strategies to help people overcome these patterns. Here are just a few examples of techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Identifying Negative Thoughts

It is important to learn what thoughts, feelings, and situations are contributing to maladaptive behaviors. This process can be difficult, however, especially for people who struggle with introspection . But taking the time to identify these thoughts can also lead to self-discovery and provide insights that are essential to the treatment process.

Practicing New Skills

In cognitive behavioral therapy, people are often taught new skills that can be used in real-world situations. For example, someone with a substance use disorder might practice new coping skills and rehearse ways to avoid or deal with social situations that could potentially trigger a relapse.


Goal setting can be an important step in recovery from mental illness, helping you to make changes to improve your health and life. During cognitive behavioral therapy, a therapist can help you build and strengthen your goal-setting skills .

This might involve teaching you how to identify your goal or how to distinguish between short- and long-term goals. It may also include helping you set SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based), with a focus on the process as much as the end outcome.


Learning problem-solving skills during cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn how to identify and solve problems that may arise from life stressors, both big and small. It can also help reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

Problem-solving in CBT often involves five steps:

  • Identify the problem
  • Generate a list of potential solutions
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each potential solution
  • Choose a solution to implement
  • Implement the solution


Also known as diary work, self-monitoring is an important cognitive behavioral therapy technique. It involves tracking behaviors, symptoms, or experiences over time and sharing them with your therapist.

Self-monitoring can provide your therapist with the information they need to provide the best treatment. For example, for people with eating disorders, self-monitoring may involve keeping track of eating habits, as well as any thoughts or feelings that went along with consuming a meal or snack.

Additional cognitive behavioral therapy techniques may include journaling , role-playing , engaging in relaxation strategies , and using mental distractions .

What Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help With

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be used as a short-term treatment to help individuals learn to focus on present thoughts and beliefs.

CBT is used to treat a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Anger issues
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Panic attacks
  • Personality disorders

In addition to mental health conditions, cognitive behavioral therapy has also been found to help people cope with:

  • Chronic pain or serious illnesses
  • Divorce or break-ups
  • Grief or loss
  • Low self-esteem
  • Relationship problems
  • Stress management

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Benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The underlying concept behind CBT is that thoughts and feelings play a fundamental role in behavior. For example, a person who spends a lot of time thinking about plane crashes, runway accidents, and other air disasters may avoid air travel as a result.

The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with things in their environment.

CBT is known for providing the following key benefits:

  • It helps you develop healthier thought patterns by becoming aware of the negative and often unrealistic thoughts that dampen your feelings and moods.
  • It is an effective short-term treatment option as improvements can often be seen in five to 20 sessions.
  • It is effective for a wide variety of maladaptive behaviors.
  • It is often more affordable than some other types of therapy .
  • It is effective whether therapy occurs online or face-to-face.
  • It can be used for those who don't require psychotropic medication .

One of the greatest benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy is that it helps clients develop coping skills that can be useful both now and in the future.

Effectiveness of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT emerged during the 1960s and originated in the work of psychiatrist Aaron Beck , who noted that certain types of thinking contributed to emotional problems. Beck labeled these "automatic negative thoughts" and developed the process of cognitive therapy. 

Where earlier behavior therapies had focused almost exclusively on associations, reinforcements , and punishments to modify behavior, the cognitive approach addresses how thoughts and feelings affect behaviors.

Today, cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most well-studied forms of treatment. It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of a range of mental conditions, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorder , panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder , and substance use disorder.

  • Research indicates that cognitive behavioral therapy is the leading evidence-based treatment for eating disorders .
  • CBT has been proven helpful in those with insomnia, as well as those who have a medical condition that interferes with sleep, including those with pain or mood disorders such as depression.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy has been scientifically proven to be effective in treating symptoms of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents.
  • A 2018 meta-analysis of 41 studies found that CBT helped improve symptoms in people with anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy has a high level of empirical support for the treatment of substance use disorders, helping people with these disorders improve self-control , avoid triggers, and develop coping mechanisms for daily stressors.

CBT is one of the most researched types of therapy, in part, because treatment is focused on very specific goals and results can be measured relatively easily.

Verywell Mind's Cost of Therapy Survey , which sought to learn more about how Americans deal with the financial burdens associated with therapy, found that Americans overwhelmingly feel the benefits of therapy:

  • 80% say therapy is a good investment
  • 91% are satisfied with the quality of therapy they receive
  • 84% are satisfied with their progress toward mental health goals

Things to Consider With Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

There are several challenges that people may face when engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy. Here are a few to consider.

Change Can Be Difficult

Initially, some patients suggest that while they recognize that certain thoughts are not rational or healthy, simply becoming aware of these thoughts does not make it easy to alter them.

CBT Is Very Structured

Cognitive behavioral therapy doesn't focus on underlying, unconscious resistance to change as much as other approaches such as  psychoanalytic psychotherapy . Instead, it tends to be more structured, so it may not be suitable for people who may find structure difficult.

You Must Be Willing to Change

For cognitive behavioral therapy to be effective, you must be ready and willing to spend time and effort analyzing your thoughts and feelings. This self-analysis can be difficult, but it is a great way to learn more about how our internal states impact our outward behavior.

Progress Is Often Gradual

In most cases, CBT is a gradual process that helps you take incremental steps toward behavior change . For example, someone with social anxiety might start by simply imagining anxiety-provoking social situations. Next, they may practice conversations with friends, family, and acquaintances. By progressively working toward a larger goal, the process seems less daunting and the goals easier to achieve.

How to Get Started With Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be an effective treatment choice for a range of psychological issues. If you or someone you love might benefit from this form of therapy, consider the following steps:

  • Consult with your physician and/or check out the directory of certified therapists offered by the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists to locate a licensed professional in your area. You can also do a search for "cognitive behavioral therapy near me" to find local therapists who specialize in this type of therapy.
  • Consider your personal preferences , including whether face-to-face or online therapy will work best for you.
  • Contact your health insurance to see if it covers cognitive behavioral therapy and, if so, how many sessions are covered per year.
  • Make an appointment with the therapist you've chosen, noting it on your calendar so you don't forget it or accidentally schedule something else during that time.
  • Show up to your first session with an open mind and positive attitude. Be ready to begin to identify the thoughts and behaviors that may be holding you back, and commit to learning the strategies that can propel you forward instead.

What to Expect With Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

If you're new to cognitive behavioral therapy, you may have uncertainties or fears of what to expect. In many ways, the first session begins much like your first appointment with any new healthcare provider.

During the first session, you'll likely spend some time filling out paperwork such as HIPAA forms (privacy forms), insurance information, medical history, current medications, and a therapist-patient service agreement. If you're participating in online therapy, you'll likely fill out these forms online.

Also be prepared to answer questions about what brought you to therapy, your symptoms , and your history—including your childhood, education, career, relationships (family, romantic, friends), and current living situation.

Once the therapist has a better idea of who you are, the challenges you face, and your goals for cognitive behavioral therapy, they can help you increase your awareness of the thoughts and beliefs you have that are unhelpful or unrealistic. Next, strategies are implemented to help you develop healthier thoughts and behavior patterns.

During later sessions, you will discuss how your strategies are working and change the ones that aren't. Your therapist may also suggest cognitive behavioral therapy techniques you can do yourself between sessions, such as journaling to identify negative thoughts or practicing new skills to overcome your anxiety .

Hofmann SG, Asnaani A, Vonk IJ, Sawyer AT, Fang A. The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses . Cognit Ther Res . 2012;36(5):427-440. doi:10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1

Merriam-Webster. Cognitive behavioral therapy .

Rnic K, Dozois DJ, Martin RA. Cognitive distortions, humor styles, and depression . Eur J Psychol. 2016;12(3):348-62. doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118

Lazarus AA, Abramovitz A. A multimodal behavioral approach to performance anxiety . J Clin Psychol. 2004;60(8):831-40. doi:10.1002/jclp.20041

Lincoln TM, Riehle M, Pillny M, et al. Using functional analysis as a framework to guide individualized treatment for negative symptoms . Front Psychol. 2017;8:2108. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02108

Ugueto AM, Santucci LC, Krumholz LS, Weisz JR. Problem-solving skills training . Evidence-Based CBT for Anxiety and Depression in Children and Adolescents: A Competencies-Based Approach . 2014. doi:10.1002/9781118500576.ch17

Lindgreen P, Lomborg K, Clausen L.  Patient experiences using a self-monitoring app in eating disorder treatment: Qualitative study .  JMIR Mhealth Uhealth.  2018;6(6):e10253. doi:10.2196/10253

Tsitsas GD, Paschali AA. A cognitive-behavior therapy applied to a social anxiety disorder and a specific phobia, case study . Health Psychol Res. 2014;2(3):1603. doi:10.4081/hpr.2014.1603

Kumar V, Sattar Y, Bseiso A, Khan S, Rutkofsky IH.  The effectiveness of internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy in treatment of psychiatric disorders .  Cureus . 2017;9(8):e1626.

Trauer JM, Qian MY, Doyle JS, Rajaratnam SMW, Cunnington D. Cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic insomnia: A systematic review and meta-analysis .  Ann Intern Med . 2015;163(3):191. doi:10.7326/M14-2841

Agras WS, Fitzsimmons-craft EE, Wilfley DE.  Evolution of cognitive-behavioral therapy for eating disorders .  Behav Res Ther . 2017;88:26-36. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2016.09.004

Oud M, De winter L, Vermeulen-smit E, et al.  Effectiveness of CBT for children and adolescents with depression: A systematic review and meta-regression analysis . Eur Psychiatry . 2019;57:33-45. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2018.12.008

Carpenter J, Andrews L, Witcraft S, Powers M, Smits J, Hofmann S. Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and related disorders: A meta‐analysis of randomized placebo‐controlled trials .  Depress Anxiety . 2018;35(6):502–14. doi:10.1002/da.22728

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).  Cognitive-behavioral therapy (alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, nicotine) .

Gaudiano BA. Cognitive-behavioural therapies: Achievements and challenges . Evid Based Ment Health . 2008;11(1):5-7. doi:10.1136/ebmh.11.1.5

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Coull G, Morris PG. The clinical effectiveness of CBT-based guided self-help interventions for anxiety and depressive disorders: A systematic review . Psycholog Med . 2011;41(11):2239-2252. doi:10.1017/S0033291711000900

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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  1. Problem-Solving Therapy: Definition, Techniques, and Efficacy

    Problem-solving therapy is a form of therapy that provides patients with tools to identify and solve problems that arise from life stressors, both big and small. Its aim is to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

  2. Solving Problems the Cognitive-Behavioral Way

    Problem-solving is one technique used on the behavioral side of cognitive-behavioral therapy. The problem-solving technique is an iterative, five-step process that requires one to...

  3. Problem Solving Therapy: PST in 3 Steps

    Problem solving therapy, which is a cognitive-behavioral therapy model, focuses on the thoughts and behaviors of people. This method acknowledges that functional changes in thoughts and behaviors will be effective in the treatment of psychological problems. @friendship_bench_zimbabwe Problem solving therapy is a cognitive-behavioral method.

  4. Problem-Solving Therapy: How It Works & What to Expect

    Problem-solving therapy (PST) is an intervention with cognitive and behavioral influences used to assist individuals in managing life problems. Therapists help clients learn effective skills to address their issues directly and make positive changes.


    Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond, 3rd ed. (2020), and Beck, J. S. Cognitive Therapy for Challenging Problems (2005). As noted in these books, the decision to use any given worksheet is based on the

  6. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Types, Techniques, Uses

    Problem-Solving . Learning problem-solving skills during cognitive behavioral therapy can help you learn how to identify and solve problems that may arise from life stressors, both big and small. It can also help reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.