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In Problem-Solving Therapy, Drs. Arthur Nezu and Christine Maguth Nezu demonstrate their positive, goal-oriented approach to treatment. Problem-solving therapy is a cognitive–behavioral intervention geared to improve an individual's ability to cope with stressful life experiences. The underlying assumption of this approach is that symptoms of psychopathology can often be understood as the negative consequences of ineffective or maladaptive coping.
Problem-solving therapy aims to help individuals adopt a realistically optimistic view of coping, understand the role of emotions more effectively, and creatively develop an action plan geared to reduce psychological distress and enhance well-being. Interventions include psychoeducation, interactive problem-solving exercises, and motivational homework assignments.
In this session, Christine Maguth Nezu works with a woman in her 50s who is depressed and deeply concerned about her son's drug addiction. Dr. Nezu first assesses her strengths and weaknesses and then helps her to clarify the problem she is facing so she can begin to move toward a solution.
The overarching goal of problem-solving therapy (PST) is to enhance the individual's ability to cope with stressful life experiences and to foster general behavioral competence. The major assumption underlying this approach, which emanates from a cognitive–behavioral tradition, is that much of what is viewed as "psychopathology" can be understood as consequences of ineffective or maladaptive coping behaviors. In other words, failure to adequately resolve stressful problems in living can engender significant emotional and behavioral problems.
Such problems in living include major negative events (e.g., undergoing a divorce, dealing with the death of a spouse, getting fired from a job, experiencing a major medical illness), as well as recurrent daily problems (e.g., continued arguments with a coworker, limited financial resources, diminished social support). How people resolve or cope with such situations can, in part, determine the degree to which they will likely experience long-lasting psychopathology and behavioral problems (e.g., clinical depression, generalized anxiety, pain, anger, relationship difficulties).
For example, successfully dealing with stressful problems will likely lead to a reduction of immediate emotional distress and prevent long-term psychological problems from occurring. Alternatively, maladaptive or unsuccessful problem resolution, either due to the overwhelming nature of events (e.g., severe trauma) or as a function of ineffective coping attempts, will likely increase the probability that long-term negative affective states and behavioral difficulties will emerge.
Social Problem Solving and Psychopathology
According to this therapy approach, social problem solving (SPS) is considered a key set of coping abilities and skills. SPS is defined as the cognitive–behavioral process by which individuals attempt to identify or discover effective solutions for stressful problems in living. In doing so, they direct their problem-solving efforts at altering the stressful nature of a given situation, their reactions to such situations, or both. SPS refers more to the metaprocess of understanding, appraising, and adapting to stressful life events, rather than representing a single coping strategy or activity.
Problem-solving outcomes in the real world have been found to be determined by two general but partially independent processes—problem orientation and problem-solving style.
Problem orientation refers to the set of generalized thoughts and feelings a person has concerning problems in living, as well as his or her ability to successfully resolve them. It can either be positive (e.g., viewing problems as opportunities to benefit in some way, perceiving oneself as able to solve problems effectively), which serves to enhance subsequent problem-solving efforts, or negative (e.g.,viewing problems as a major threat to one's well-being, overreacting emotionally when problems occur), which functions to inhibit attempts to solve problems.
Problem-solving style refers to specific cognitive–behavioral activities aimed at coping with stressful problems. Such styles are either adaptive, leading to successful problem resolution, or dysfunctional, leading to ineffective coping, which then can generate myriad negative consequences, including emotional distress and behavioral problems. Rational problem solving is the constructive style geared to identify an effective solution to the problem and involves the systematic and planful application of specific problem-solving tasks. Dysfunctional problem-solving styles include (a) impulsivity/carelessness (i.e., impulsive, hurried, and incomplete attempts to solve a problem), and (b) avoidance (i.e.,avoiding problems, procrastinating, and depending on others to solve one's problems).
Important differences have been identified between individuals characterized as "effective" versus "ineffective" problem solvers. In general, when compared to effective problem solvers, persons characterized by ineffective problem solving report a greater number of life problems, more health and physical symptoms, more anxiety, more depression, and more psychological maladjustment. In addition, a negative problem orientation has been found to be associated with negative moods under both routine and stressful conditions, as well as pessimism, negative emotional experiences, and clinical depression. Further, persons with negative orientations tend to worry and complain more about their health.
Problem-Solving Therapy Goals
PST teaches individuals to apply adaptive coping skills to both prevent and cope with stressful life difficulties. Specific PST therapy objectives include
- enhancing a person's positive orientation
- fostering his or her application of specific rational problem-solving tasks (i.e., accurately identifying why a situation is a problem, generating solution alternatives, conducting a cost-benefit analysis in order to decide which ideas to choose to include as part of an overall solution plan, implementing the solution, monitoring its effects, and evaluating the outcome)
- reducing his or her negative orientation
- minimizing one's tendency to engage in dysfunctional problem-solving style activities (i.e., impulsively attempting to solve the problem or avoiding the problem)
PST interventions involve psychoeducation, interactive problem-solving training exercises, practice opportunities, and homework assignments intended to motivate patients to apply the problem-solving principles outside of the therapy sessions.
PST has been shown to be effective regarding a wide range of clinical populations, psychological problems, and the distress associated with chronic medical disorders. Scientific evaluations have focused on unipolar depression, geriatric depression, distressed primary-care patients, social phobia, agoraphobia, obesity, coronary heart disease, adult cancer patients, adults with schizophrenia, mentally retarded adults with concomitant psychiatric problems, HIV-risk behaviors, drug abuse, suicide, childhood aggression, and conduct disorder.
Moreover, PST is flexible with regard to treatment goals and methods of implementation. For example, it can be conducted in a group format, on an individual and couples basis, as part of a larger cognitive–behavioral treatment package, over the phone, as well as on the Internet. It can also be applied as a means of helping patients to overcome barriers associated with successful adherence to other medical or psychosocial treatment protocols (e.g., adhering to weight-loss programs, diabetes regulation).
Arthur M. Nezu, PhD, ABPP, is currently professor of psychology, medicine, and community health and prevention at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is one of the codevelopers of a cognitive–behavioral approach to teaching social problem-solving skills and has conducted multiple RCTs testing its efficacy across a variety of populations. These populations include clinically depressed adults, depressed geriatric patients, adults with mental retardation and concomitant psychopathology, distressed cancer patients and their spousal caregivers, individuals in weight-loss programs, breast cancer patients, and adult sexual offenders.
Dr. Nezu has contributed to more than 175 professional and scientific publications, including the books Solving Life's Problems: A 5-Step Guide to Enhanced Well-Being, Helping Cancer Patients Cope: A Problem-Solving Approach, and Problem-Solving Therapy: A Positive Approach to Clinical Intervention. He also codeveloped the self-report measure Social Problem-Solving Inventory—Revised. Dr. Nezu is on numerous editorial boards of scientific and professional journals and a member of the Interventions Research Review Committee of the National Institute of Mental Health.
An award-winning psychologist, he was previously president of the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy, the Behavioral Psychology Specialty Council, the World Congress of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and the American Board of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, the Society for Behavior Medicine, the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, and the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology. Dr. Nezu was awarded the diplomate in Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology and currently serves as a trustee of that board.
He has been in private practice for over 25 years, and is currently conducting outcome studies to evaluate the efficacy of problem-solving therapy to treat depression among adults with heart disease.
Christine Maguth Nezu, PhD, ABPP, is currently professor of psychology, associate professor of medicine, and director of the masters programs in psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She previously served as director of the APA-accredited Internship/Residency in Clinical Psychology, as well as the Cognitive–Behavioral Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, at the Medical College of Pennsylvania/Hahnemann University.
She is the coauthor or editor of more than 100 scholarly publications, including 15 books. Her publications cover a wide range of topics in mental health and behavioral medicine, many of which have been translated into a variety of foreign languages.
Dr. Maguth Nezu is currently the president-elect of the American Board of Professional Psychology, on the board of directors for the American Board of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology, and on the board of directors for the American Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology. She is the recipient of numerous grant awards supporting her research and program development, particularly in the area of clinical interventions. She serves as an accreditation site visitor for APA for clinical training programs and is on the editorial boards of several leading psychology and health journals.
Dr. Maguth Nezu has conducted workshops on clinical interventions and case formulation both nationally and internationally. She is currently the North American representative to the World Congress of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies. She holds a diplomate in Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology and has been active in private practice for more than 20 years.
Her current areas of interest include the treatment of depression in medical patients, the integration of cognitive and behavioral therapies with patients' spiritual beliefs and practices, interventions directed toward stress, coping, and health, and cognitive behavior therapy and problem-solving therapy for individuals with personality disorders.
- D'Zurilla, T. J., & Nezu, A. M. (2007). Problem-solving therapy: A positive approach to clinical intervention (3rd ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Co.
- D'Zurilla, T. J., Nezu, A. M., & Maydeu-Olivares, A. (2002). Social Problem-Solving Inventory—Revised (SPSI-R): Technical manual. North Tonawanda, NY: Multi-Health Systems.
- Nezu, A. M. (2004). Problem solving and behavior therapy revisited. Behavior Therapy, 35, 1–33.
- Nezu, A. M., & Nezu, C. M. (in press). Problem-solving therapy. In S. Richards & M. G. Perri (Eds.), Relapse prevention for depression. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Nezu, A. M., Nezu, C. M., & Clark, M. (in press). Problem solving as a risk factor for depression. In K. S. Dobson & D. Dozois (Eds.), Risk factors for depression. New York: Elsevier Science.
- Nezu, A. M., Nezu, C. M., & Perri, M. G. (2006). Problem solving to promote treatment adherence. In W. T. O'Donohue & E. Livens (Eds.), Promoting treatment adherence: A practical handbook for health care providers (pp. 135–148). New York: Sage Publications.
- Nezu, A. M., Nezu, C. M., & D'Zurilla, T. J. (2007). Solving life's problems: A 5-step guide to enhanced well-being. New York: Springer Publishing Co.
- Nezu, A. M., Nezu, C. M., Friedman, S. H., Faddis, S., & Houts, P. S. (1998). Helping cancer patients cope: A problem-solving approach. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Nezu, C. M., D'Zurilla, T. J., & Nezu, A. M. (2005). Problem-solving therapy: Theory, practice, and application to sex offenders. In M. McMurran & J. McGuire (Eds.), Social problem solving and offenders: Evidence, evaluation and evolution (pp. 103–123). Chichester, UK: Wiley.
- Nezu, C. M., Palmatier, A., & Nezu, A. M. (2004). Social problem-solving training for caregivers. In E. C. Chang, T. J. D'Zurilla, & L. J. Sanna (Eds.), Social problem solving: Theory, research, and training (pp. 223–238). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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