Addiction A-Z

Solution-focused brief therapy

Not everyone who’s struggling with depression, anxiety, or a host of other challenging life issues or mental health symptoms wants (nor can afford) to spend months on end – let alone two to five years or more – in therapy. They also don’t always have the time, luxury, emotional energy or desire to explore and work through an intricate and seemingly endless tangled web of unresolved conflicts and childhood issues.

While those therapeutic endeavors can be very helpful, they aren’t always necessary in order for therapy to produce positive and beneficial results in a relatively short amount of time. Not to mention, spending significant amounts of time discussing and analyzing the problem means the therapy client is still suffering in the meantime. Most people want at least some relief and answers much sooner.

This is the primary objective of particular type of psychotherapy known as Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT). Human beings are incredibly complex creatures, but zeroing in on a specific problem – and determining the best solution for it – is a treatment approach that is very appealing (not to mention more affordable) for many individuals.

Premise of SFBT

Solution-focused brief therapy is based on the idea that the solutions for most of your problems can be found within you. The reason behind this thinking is due to the fact that even if you’ve been battling a particular disorder or problem for years, the severity ebbs and flows. There are almost always periods of time when the symptoms are less intense or even gone, or you seem to be handling things quite well.

Even though you may not have made the connection, you were doing something differently – something positive and beneficial – during those periods. Solution-focused therapists believe that the answer or solution can be found by taking a closer look at the better times to determine what was working for you. Therapy helps bring that to your awareness so you can consciously use it now and in the future as needed.

A key concept in SFBT involves the “miracle question.” This is sometimes referred to as the “problem is gone” question. It refers to the therapist instructing you to describe – in detail – what your life will look like – how it will be different and better – once the problem is gone (or the miracle of solving it is achieved).

Solution-focused brief therapy often has a ripple effect. This is because one of the most empowering things for people who are struggling is having that first success – even just a small one. With each success you become more optimistic, empowered, confident and motivated to have more successes. Future successes build or spread from the initial success, much like the ripples in a pond multiply and expand from the impact of one small pebble.

In more traditional and long-term types of therapy, it’s easy to get discouraged when it seems you’re not making any progress. Sure, insight is great; understanding the underlying “why” can certainly be helpful at times – to a point. But insight alone often fails to bring about necessary or desired changes. In SFBT, the goal is to identify and repeat what works. Once you’ve learned how to do that with one problem you can apply the same principle to other problems as well. This works much better for many individuals than trying to change major aspects of themselves, or adapting solutions that may have worked for someone else to their own life. What works for John may not work at all for Sarah or Mark.

Consider, for example, the impact of a small success if you’re struggling with depression. Depression, by its very nature, is demotivating. Feelings of hopelessness, along with a strong external locus of control (meaning you feel as if your efforts are futile because things outside of you determine the outcome no matter how hard you try), quickly start to diminish with each success. You realize, perhaps for the first time in a very long time, that you really can have a positive impact on your life – by recognizing and using what works for you. As your mood improves, your energy and motivation increase as well. This enables you to start applying the same principle to other challenges in your life.

Picturing your preferred future – the way your life will be when things get better – is the key to finding the solution. Once that picture is firmly established in your mind, then therapy has a clear direction. It becomes laser-focused as you work with your therapist to get from point A (where you’re at today – with the problem present) to point B (where you want to be – free from the problem). This clear roadmap helps speed up the process.

Two of the biggest concerns and potential drawbacks of SFBT – depending on who you talk to – typically revolve around its seemingly overly simplistic nature and whether or not it can be truly effective for treating complex disorders and problems. However, these potential issues may be largely attributed to perception and a lack of understanding of the process rather than reality. Follow-up studies have shown an impressive success rate for those who’ve received this type of therapy.

Benefits of SFBT

Solution-focused brief therapy offers numerous benefits, including the following:

Relatively brief – SFBT helps clients reach their therapy goals in a relatively short amount of time (often just a few sessions). While “brief” is a subjective terms, SFBT is truly a short-term therapy, especially compared to other types of therapy that tend to focus heavily on gaining insight into problems.

More affordable compared to other types of therapy – Since treatment goals are often reached within a few sessions, this type of therapy is typically more affordable – both in terms of the client’s time and money – than many other types of therapy.

Focused and proactive – SFBT eliminates the often tedious – and not always helpful – process of attempting to understand the “why” behind the presenting problem. Being solution-focused, rather than “insight-oriented”, helps streamline the process.

Focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses – One of the underlying goals of most therapies is to fix what’s broken. The process involves identifying and improving or changing the client’s weaknesses and deficits. Solution-focused brief therapy, on the other hand, focuses on the client’s strengths, as well as his or her resources; it helps clients identify what they’ve been doing right rather than what they’ve been doing wrong.

What to Expect

Many people are often reluctant go to therapy because they envision themselves lying on a sofa or sitting in a chair, sharing their deepest, darkest secrets. They picture the rather expressionless therapist – clipboard and pen in hand – silently scribbling down notes – the content of which, of course, the therapist never reveals. (Nothing unnerving or intimidating about that!) The therapist asks an occasional question, while nodding and “hmmm-ing” frequently. This often makes people feel quite vulnerable, and definitely in the “one-down” position. SFBT, on the other hand, involves a much more collaborative and direct interaction between client and therapist.

In SFBT, you don’t have to worry about digging up painful secrets and memories, or talk endlessly about your distant past. You’re not perceived as damaged or broken. Instead, you’re regarded as a capable human being who already possesses the solution to your problem.

Although the timeframe for this type of therapy definitely varies from one client to the next, you can usually expect to spend around five or six sessions in SFBT. Like most types of therapy, SFBT sessions are typically set up to occur once per week, and usually last between 50 and 60 minutes.

Disorders and Issues Treated by SFBT

Solution-focused brief therapy has been effective in treating a variety of mental health disorders and personal challenges, including:

  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Relationship problems
  • Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction
  • Sexual abuse issues
  • Family conflicts
  • Parenting issues
  • Stress
  • Anxiety

Like all therapies, solution-focused brief therapy isn’t perfect, magical, or right for everyone. However, you potentially have a lot to gain and little to lose with this short-term treatment approach. Unless you live in a very rural or remote part of the country, you should be able to find a mental health professional in your area who uses SFBT as his or her primary treatment approach.

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