E10: Problem Solving

problem solving examples dbt


In the previous exercises from this module we worked on recognizing certain situations that are triggering and causing us to feel overwhelming emotions. This is helpful because once we know that certain situation can be potentially problematic for us, then we can also work on doing something before the situation happens again - a type of preparation. This is exactly what we are going to be working on in this exercise. Getting prepared beforehand can give us a sense of control over the triggering situation that is about to happen. We will go through four steps that are going to help you solve the problematic situation before it happens.


Step one: behavior analysis.

Take your time and try to remember what usually causes you to feel ineffectively overwhelmed. Is it an event with your family, a work situation, your kids or your friends? Next, write down the emotion that you are usually experiencing. Maybe you feel intensively angry, rejected or abandoned, or depressed and anxious. Try to remember how the situation usually takes place and what your ongoing fleeting feelings and thoughts are while the situation is happening.

Example : Event : My husband criticizes my looks. He makes a subtle comment that I should lose weight and that I should dress differently. Main emotion : Anger Other emotions and thoughts during the event : At first, I low-key agree with him and I think how fat and ugly I look. I've always hated my body. Before my anger strikes I feel ashamed and sad.

Step Two: What Can I Change?

What out of the three elements from the previous step can you change? Bare in mind that the change that you can potentially make should eventually improve your emotional health and your immediate overwhelming emotion.

Sometimes it's impossible to change the external event, but we can work on our thoughts and how we talk to ourselves internally during the situation. Pick two things out of the elements in the previous step that you think are the most suitable for you to try to change.

In the previous example, the person cannot control what her husband says to her. What she can work on though, is the messages she directs towards herself about her appearance. At the same time, she will also work on the feelings of shame and sadness that are occurring during the event.

Step Three: Brainstorming Alternatives

Now that you have identified the two aspects that you can and would like to change, it's time to brainstorm for alternative ideas. If you chose to work on the occurring thoughts, what else can you say to yourself about the situation? What can you remind yourself of in order to objectify the all-or-nothing thinking or the generalizations you make? Perhaps you want to change the event and do something differently than what you usually does.

In the example we presented, the alternative and objective thoughts that the woman can remind herself of would be: - "He has no right to make such aggressive comments and body shame me." - "Even though his tone was seemingly polite, it is not okay to say things like that to your significant other. It's still passive aggressive." - "I don't have to look a certain way unless I want to. My body serves me in great ways and I am grateful that I am physically healthy." - "There are many great aspects about me, I am sociable and charming." - "This trend to be thin will probably have a cultural shift and it will change. It's just a societal pressure and conditioning and I really am smarter than that!"

Step Four: Put the Solution into Action

After you have brainstormed for ideas about what you can do to change the aspects that are changeable, choose what works best for you and try to put the solution into action. Actively decide and remind yourself to act the way you decided to next time you find yourself in the situation.

For example: "Now that I've straightened some of the incorrect ways in which I am thinking about my body, I want to try and remind myself more often of what I actually believe in. Maybe next time this happens I can communicate to my husband what my thoughts are in a polite way and not get angry and make mean comments to hurt him back. I will assertively put boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not."

Use the worksheet to help you prepare for situations that you expect to be difficult.

DBT Emotional Regulation: Problem Solving

How should I know which aspect of the situation should I work on changing? I am not sure which one is the most suitable.

Start with the things you have control over. For example, our thoughts and the resulting feelings are usually something we can work on (trying to straighten the cognitive distortions present). You can benefit from the exercise about cognitive vulnerability that we previously worked on in this module. Sometimes the way in which other people consistently behave is out of our control. That is not to say that we shouldn't try to communicate our boundaries. You can also work on changing the way you behave in and do something differently. For example you can walk out of a situation that is harmful to you (if possible).

I can't think of alternatives, my brainstorming session is a little dry.

You can try asking somebody you trust and you know has your back about ideas about the situation. If you regularly put yourself down with the way you think about yourself and the way you interpret the events around you, then you can try thinking about what advice you would give a friend of yours who is in the same situation. Remember that the potential solution to the problem should eventually improve the situation for you and help you with the overwhelming emotion you usually experience. For example, in the body-shaming example we presented, if the woman shamed herself into losing a lot of weight, she would still end up with negative emotions, so that would not be the best solution for her.

What if I can't remember to try the solution I've come up with next time I find myself in the problematic situation?

It is okay if you need some time to get used to implementing the solution. Quality change doesn't come with little effort. If you don't remember to implement the solution the first time, just remind yourself that that is totally fine, be patient and try it again next time. Maybe the first couple of times you won't end up with the emotion you would eventually like to feel, but remember that this is a skill and it can be learned through practice.

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problem solving examples dbt

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The 4 DBT problem-solving options you can use

DBT’s options for solving ANY problem

As San Francisco DBT therapists, we work with people who want help managing emotions and relationships.

We see all sorts of problems that result in all kinds of pain.

Even though there are as many different problems as there are human beings, there are really only four solutions to solve any problem, regardless of what the problem is.

What, you may wonder? Isn’t solving problems complicated? Yes and no. The details of how we go about solving any problem may be complex and take time, but our options are quite finite.

The 4 DBT problem-solving options*

Solve the problem.

Change or leave the situation.

Feel Better about the Problem

Regulate the emotions that the problem elicits.

Tolerate the Problem

Accept and tolerate the problem, as well as your response to it.

Stay Miserable

Don’t make any changes.

Let’s look at each of the 4 DBT problem-solving options in more depth:

With any problem situation, you can figure out if there is a way to change the situation, avoid the situation or leave the situation.

Example: Let’s take the problem of feeling lonely and isolated.

You could solve the problem by changing the situation to meet new people and form friendships. You could join social groups or volunteer for a cause where you will interact with others. You could initiate conversations with co-workers or neighbors, or try to re-connect with old friends you lost touch with.

Feel better about the problem

You can decide not to change the actual problematic situation, but to change your emotions in reaction to it.

Example: You could feel better about being lonely by reassuring yourself that being lonely does not mean you are unlikable or unlovable. And by reminding yourself that making new friends isn’t easy.

You could find ways to get more enjoyment out of the time you spend on your own, by making sure you still do things that you want to do even if you’re alone. Like going to see a movie or checking out a new restaurant – even if you do these things by yourself.

Tolerate the problem

If you can’t solve the problem, and you can’t feel better about the problem, you can still ease some of the emotional suffering that the problem brings up.

Example : If you can’t do things to build new friendships or feel better about being alone, you can respond to the problem by accepting and tolerating both the problem and your response to it.

Maybe your work schedule, home responsibilities or a disability means you can’t solve the problem by going out and joining a group to meet new people.

You may not be successful in your attempts to feel better about being alone, despite your use of skills.

But you can reduce your suffering by using the Distress Tolerance skill of Radical Acceptance . Radical acceptance doesn’t equal approval of the situation, but radical acceptance means you stop fighting reality .

No one can avoid pain, but resisting pain creates suffering and suffering is optional .

Stay Miserable:

You could choose to stay miserable. Or, you could also do things that will make the problem even worse.

To choose this option, don’t use any skills!

Solving your problems

So there you have it – the four DBT problem-solving options. Depending on the nature of your problem, you may choose a different option for different situations. Of course, it’s totally up to you. The important thing is that you take the time to think about and acknowledge how you’re dealing with the problem.

A DBT skills group will teach you the necessary skills to solve problems, feel better about problems and tolerate problems.

Contact us to see how therapy can help you. We offer individual and group DBT as well as couples counseling . Our offices are located in the Castro district of San Francisco.

* Adapted from the DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Marsha Linehan Guildford Press 2015

Problem Solving Skill

The Problem Solving skill can be very useful once we have determined that a problem has arisen, and it’s our problem to solve. Sometimes we experience unpleasant emotions about the actions of others or situations that we cannot change. This skill specifically helps us to collect the facts and take steps to solve a problem for which we can change.

There are a number of steps to effective problem solving:

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Options for Solving Any Problem – DBT in Action

If you think about it, the human condition offers us of an almost infinite number of problems – issues with relationships, jobs, money, health, managing our homes, etc. Despite the wide range of problems we might encounter, there are a limited number of options for solving them.

According to DBT , there are four possibilities for action when addressing a concern:

As a simple example, let’s say you order a new couch. When it arrives, it just isn’t what you imagined it to be. Maybe the color is off. Or it doesn’t quite fit in your space. Whatever it is, you’re just not liking the piece. Using Option 1 (solve the problem) you might see about the store’s return policy or you might add some throw pillows to help with the color or add an accent chair if the couch is too small for your space. Option 1 relies on problem-solving and other skills from the emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness (when the problem is interpersonal) modules we teach in DBT.

Using Option 2 (feel better about the problem), you might focus on what you like about the couch. Maybe, despite its color or size, you find the couch comfortable or durable, so you bring your attention to that, focusing on what’s right or what works. You remind yourself that the couch is just one item in your home and that your happiness and well-being aren’t contingent upon everything you own. Maybe you focus on other pieces in your home you do enjoy. Option 2 calls upon the emotion regulation skills from DBT.

With Option 3 (accepting the problem), you accept that this is your new couch (even if you don’t like it). You drop the struggle, which means you stop fighting the reality that the couch isn’t right or should be different. You accept that you have a couch that you don’t like. While acceptance doesn’t mean that you like something, it does mean that you acknowledge that that is the reality. With Option 3, we make use of our distress tolerance and mindfulness skills from DBT.

Option 4 (stay miserable) is always an option, but it’s one that leads to suffering and one we hope you won’t often choose. With Option 4, you don’t use any DBT skills.

Can you think of a problem you’re currently facing? Now, see if you can workshop each of the options. What would each option look like in terms of addressing this concern? Keep in mind, you don’t necessarily have to pick only one; you can mix and match to arrive at a solution that works best for you. And, you might shift from one option to another over the course of time.

To learn all of the skills from the four modules of DBT (mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness) in a supportive group setting, contact us to learn more about our DBT skills training offerings.

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DBT Skills: How to Change Your Emotions

by Laura Lanier | Aug 1, 2017

problem solving examples dbt

The process of managing what sometimes seems like a hot mess of emotions is actually relatively straightforward (thank goodness!). First, explore the logic and appropriateness of your identified emotion in context. Then, if your emotion is illogical, or acting on it would not be appropriate or helpful, practice “opposite action.” If however,  your emotion is logical and appropriate,  then practice  a skill called problem solving. Let’s dive a little deeper into these terms so that they can hopefully become useful tools in your own emotional toolkit!

The first step to changing your emotions is identifying a specific emotion you want to change. I highly recommend using a feelings wheel  (like the one included in my previous blog)  to help with this step. Next, identify the event or situation that caused the emotion. Begin by stating the facts of what happened using your five senses. For example, I heard the woman smacking her gum loudly and I smelled it too. Now, beyond the facts, how did you interpret this event emotionally or cognitively? What assumptions did you make? Could there be any other interpretations or points of view on this event? If you are feeling threatened, consider the likelihood of actual danger, as well as other potential outcomes. If there is an imminent threat or catastrophe, imagine how you would cope with it.

Finally, take all of this mental processing  into account  and consider whether or not your emotion and level of emotional arousal fits the facts of the situation. To continue our example, perhaps you interpreted the gum-smacking as intentionally rude and it hurt your feelings and caused you to become cold and rude. However, after thinking about how the woman with the gum may have a different perspective (perhaps she was not raised, as you were, to find gum-smacking rude), you  decide that it is unlikely that she is actually threatening or ignoring you in any way.

When Emotions Don’t Fit Facts (Opposite Action)

If you have determined that your emotional reaction is disproportionate to the situation or acting on the emotion would not be appropriate or helpful, you may change your emotion by practicing “Opposite Action.” This means figuring out what action your emotion is suggesting, such as anger telling you to gripe at the incompetent waiter at a restaurant, and doing the opposite. Smile at them, tip them well, tell them to have a good day. The key is to do  it all sincerely and without bitterness. You may feel silly, but in order for this to work, you must commit. And if it doesn’t work the first time, keep trying until it does!

When Emotions Fit Facts (Problem Solving)

If you have fact-checked and determine that your emotion is an appropriate response and not merely an overt reaction,  move to practice problem solving. Problem solving helps you cope with the situation and your emotions. First, set a goal for what solving this problem would look like. What would need to happen for you to feel stable? How would you know if the problem was fixed (what would look different)? Next, brainstorm solutions. Brainstorming means writing down any and every idea that pops into your head, without judgment or filter. The next step is to choose the idea you think is most likely to work and achieve the goal you’ve set. Finally, try out your chosen solution, and evaluate how well it worked. If it didn’t work, go back to your brainstorming notes and try again with a different solution.

An example of problem solving could be if you were forced to attend a family function in which you felt very threatened or uncomfortable because of past experiences or trauma. It is appropriate to feel uncomfortable because you have good reason to believe that this experience will  not be pleasant. You may choose to give yourself an escape plan such as a friend you could ask to call you or pick you up if you needed an excuse to leave. Or, you may bring a friend along who you know would be supportive and helpful.

It may be difficult or overwhelming to imagine practicing this all at once in the heat of extreme emotions. However, you may begin practicing by considering how you would apply these techniques to a recent experience. Once you’ve done this enough to familiarize yourself with the process, it will become easier and more natural to incorporate it into your daily life. Amazingly, you will find that your emotions  can actually change as they happen.

Intrigued by this idea of managing and changing your emotional reactions, I love to talk about how to learn and apply these skills in your particular situation. You can contact me at 940-222-8703 x705 or [email protected], or schedule an appointment online!

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DBT – Options for Solving Any Problem

by Mitchell Olson, MA LPCC | Feb 20, 2017 | DBT Skills , Mental Health | 0 comments

DBT – Options for Solving Any Problem

Options for Solving Any Problem When life presents you with problems, what are your options? 1. Solve the Problem Change the situation . . . or avoid, leave, or get out of the situation for good. 2. Feel Better about the Problem Change (or regulate) your emotional response to the problem. 3. Tolerate the Problem Accept and tolerate both the problem and your response to the problem. 4. Stay Miserable

Or possibly make it worse! 1. To Problem-Solve: Use interpersonal effectiveness skills Walking the Middle Path (from interpersonal effectiveness skills) Use problem-solving skills (from emotion regulation skills) 2. To Feel Better about the Problem: Use emotion regulation skills 3. To Tolerate the Problem: Use distress tolerance and mindfulness skills 4. To Stay Miserable: Use no skills!

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