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Problem Solving: A Proven and Simple Way to Treat Depression

If you are human, you will have problems. Having problems means that you are normal and solving them means you are a happy normal! Genuine problems such as not being able to pay your bills on time or not knowing how to go about furthering your education are best addressed by problem-solving and not by cognitive techniques such as challenging your irrational thoughts. Problem-solving therapy is an effective treatment for depression, but has received little attention as most popular books on self-help of depression heavily rely on cognitive-behavioral techniques (Kirkham et al., 2015). The problem-solving steps are described next (Martell et al., 2010; Nezu et al., 1989).

Problem-solving steps

1.     Define the problem in clear and specific behavioral terms, i.e., what specific behavior needs to be addressed or changed. You will be able to generate better solutions for a specific problem such as, “I have been postponing paying my bills for last two weeks and feel overwhelmed whenever I try to do that” versus the vague problem, “I can’t get anything done.” To get the specifics of a problem, describe it in terms of: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?

2.     Define your goals in addressing the problem – what is your desired outcome? Goals are often stated beginning with the phrase, “How can I …?”

3.     Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. When brainstorming solutions, generate as many solutions as possible, don’t analyze or judge the possible solutions at this stage, and think in terms of both broad strategies and focused tactics. However, be aware that when you are feeling depressed, it is a challenge not to prematurely judge a solution negatively due to your underlying negative irrational thoughts (e.g., “This is never going to work,” or “Yes, but…” rejection of a solution). Also, a judgmental stance engendered by depression curbs creative thinking. If you are drawing a blank, then use the following strategies to stimulate your brain into thinking about more solutions:
  • Think about an individual you know personally who you admire and respect or someone from the world of movies, books, or current events. Next, ask yourself, “How would he or she approach this problem? What actions would this person take if faced with the same problem?”
  • Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the problematic situation. Imagine yourself successfully coping with the problem. Think of what you would say and do to deal effectively with the situation.

4.      Weigh pros and cons for each solution.
  • “How likely is it that this solution would help me reach my goal?”
  •  “What bad things could happen if I pick this solution?”
  •  “What is the likelihood that I can implement this solution in its optimal form?”

5.     Pick one solution and implement it. Sometimes a combination of solutions may work better as they complement each other.

6.     Evaluate the effectiveness and make changes to your approach, if needed.

7.     If the problem is not resolved, then do one of the following troubleshooting strategies:

  • Reset your goals as they may not be realistic.
  • Break the problem down into smaller chunks. 
  • Think of more possible solutions.

Becoming a master problem-solver comes with practice. You may want to write down the problem-solving steps on an index card as a reference to deal with minor or major problems. In addition, it is essential to integrate your new behaviors into a routine in order to have an enduring impact of the problem-solving exercise.

Tips to improve problem-solving skills

Following tips will enhance your problem-solving skills (Nezu et al., 1989):

·         Recognize that problems are part-and-parcel of life.

·         Many individuals have common types of problems and you are not alone.

·         Approach problem-solving with a rational, realistic, and positive attitude.

·         Don’t avoid facing a problem. Solving problems breaks the vicious cycle of problems leading to depression leading to more problems.

·         Work on smaller problems and build yourself up for the bigger ones.

·         There is no such thing as the perfect solution. Pick the best solution that works for you.

·         Stop and think before picking a solution – the first idea may not always be the best!

·         You have the ability to change your solution whenever you want.

·       If you cannot solve a problem after trying the troubleshooting strategies, then seek help from someone who is more knowledgeable or trained to deal with your situation. For instance, consult a financial advisor if you are not able to solve your financial problems after repeated problem-solving attempts.

To learn more about evidence-based self-management techniques that are proven to work for depression, check out Dr. Duggal's Author Page.



Kirkham, J. G., Choi, N., & Seitz, D. P. (2015). Meta-analysis of problem solving therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder in older adults. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Oct 5. doi: 10.1002/gps.4358.

Martell, C. R., Dimidjian, S., & Herman-Dunn, R. (2010). Behavioral activation for depression: A clinician’s guide. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Nezu, A. M., Nezu, C., & Perri, M. G. (1989). Problem-solving in depression: Theory, research, and clinical guidelines. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


  1. Very interesting

    I also wrote something similar. Maybe not as in debt as yours but similar and worth a read if your willing?

  2. Dear Dr. Harpreet Duggal,

    Thanks for sharing!

    Very clear; straight to the point!


  3. Thank you for sharing, very informative.


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