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Solution Focused Brief Therapy – What’s it all about?


Let's get straight then to solutions…solutions….solutions…ahhhh sweet soothing solutions. Solutions are like magic ointment which can soooo-oooothe emotional arousal…and mostly they’re always available…if we will but take the time to look for them.

Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is simple. Solution Focused means focusing on solutions to current problems. Brief Therapy means that it is time limited and doesn’t go on indefinitely. “Brief” here means….comparatively brief. In older forms of therapeutic intervention one might expect to undertake hundreds or in many cases thousands of hours of therapy to sort out one’s neuroses’ over periods of years using an often painful introspective process of analysing emotional wounds, dysfunctions, and personal relationship dynamics. This is unnecessary and for most of us is like pulling teeth without anaesthetic. With SFBT one might expect somewhere between one and twenty sessions. Most people are good to go within 5-10 sessions. Many problems (simple phobias for instance) are usually resolved quicker than that. More pervasive anxiety disorders invariably err toward the 10, 12, or 15 session end of the spectrum, though this is often spread out over a relatively longer period of time. So if you’re worrying because you’re not feeling like it’s all fixed in 3 or 5 sessions, please be patient…You are a human being….. not a machine. You are also quite normal. Overcoming anxiety, sometimes, takes time. When your expectation is reasonable you can STOP feeling like something is wrong if you’re not “fixed” immediately. We’ll get to getting “fixed” in a bit. SFBT does not guarantee (though does sometimes deliver) overnight transformation. It means “quick compared to the old school”.

Hope doesn't come from calculating whether the good news is winning out over the bad. It's simply a choice to take action - Anna Lappe

Solutions then?. Well. Solutions create hope. Hope makes a brain happy. There’s nothing a brain likes less than feeling all hemmed in. So when your brain gets snagged or stuck on an obstacle, the very best thing you can do is seek a solution. When you find a solution to a problem you get a little “feel good” chemical reward from your brain to let you know you did a good job. Solving problems gives you a buzz. When you are in problem solving mode you are inviting yourself to step out of the emotional mind and into the left pre-frontal cortex. The left pre-frontal cortex is the most powerful part of your brain and enjoys the greatest degree of “control”. When you are in “control” there’s no need to be anxious, because being in “control” means that you are not vulnerable and if you’re not vulnerable then there’s nothing to avoid…so no fear. We can choose to use our problem solving brain……..but unfortunately when anxious it can be so easy to simply forget we ever had one. If we don’t use our problem solving brain then our emotional mind will try to figure it out (our problem) all by itself and since our emotional mind is naturally negative, and emotional, we’re not likely to feel too great about what it comes up with….usually MORE emotion!

If you are feeling bad or hopeless, ask yourself what “problem” you are getting snagged on right now? HOW can you create a solution?

AVOID asking yourself “WHY” there is a problem. “Why” requires a different approach and outside of a therapeutic approach encourages introspection rather than solution. We may well cover “why” in a controlled way in therapy, but for everyday anxiety busting you need to stay focused in your everyday life on solutions. That means asking yourself HOW can you create a solution? Write down your options (writing helps to clarify). Possible questions will include but are by no means limited to: -

What is the worst that could happen?

What would you do if that did happen? (“Freak out” is not the right answer…try again with something more constructive.)

What steps could you take to prevent this happening? 

How would things eventually work themselves out even if the worst did happen?

What is the likelihood of the worst happening?

What do you reasonably expect to happen? 

What is the best case scenario?

Likelihood of this occurring?

Be methodical and rational in your thinking, not emotional or cyclical. Think it through to solution, even if the solution is to know that right now you can’t know and that you must therefore put the problem for now to one side. Clear thought is tremendously empowering, and by utilising clear thought you can stop those “vague” worries you’ve been having. Contingency plans are great anxiety busters.

Also stay mindful of how you use the word BUT when speaking to yourself. If you are in the habit of saying “I know I could do X but…….” Remember “but” is a deletion word. “But” deletes everything that went before it.  Try…”I know I could do X AND by jove I think I will.”

When creating solutions use the word “and” instead of “but”.

Be mindful of this. It can make a big difference to what seems possible.

The Frontal Lobe – The most fabulous object in the World. Apparently…….the human brain is the most highly organised matter in the known universe.

There is a popular urban myth circulating that we only use 10% of our brain’s capacity. This myth has prevailed for over 100 years despite clear evidence to the contrary. We do in fact use ALL of our brain. It just goes to show how easily we can believe things which clearly are not true and not particularly helpful either.

Our early ancestors had a brain approximately half the size of the brain we have today. That brain consisted largely of the limbic system (the emotional/instinctive mammalian brain) we have already discussed. The Frontal Lobe is in evolutionary terms, a recent development. During our evolutionary journey our brains have doubled in size. The Frontal Lobe is, amongst other things, responsible for “making plans”. When Phineas Gage (a railroad foreman) had an accident with some dynamite in 1848 he ended up destroying his frontal lobe, though surprisingly, with only half a brain he lived on for a further 10 years. He was, it is said, mentally intact in every respect except that he lost his sense of control when it came to social graces and he also lost the ability to plan ahead. Phineas gave us our first insight into the role of the frontal lobe. We’ve since learned a lot more about the frontal lobe, and a good way of thinking about what it does is to think of it as a “future experience synthesizer”. If you think about it, it’s a pretty advanced piece of kit. You can have an experience before you have it. Imagine please…..

So there you are…it’s December…you’re on the seafront at Weston Super Mare and you’re wondering whether you should take off all your clothes and run naked into the sea/mud? (To celebrate the festive season of course.) You don’t actually need to do it to know it’s probably not a good idea. You can run the process “virtually” in your frontal lobe and “imagine” what that experience will be like. If your virtual frontal lobe simulation of that experience tells you it will be a fantastic experience then you’ll throw caution to the wind along with your clothes and get wet. But if your simulation says otherwise you will receive a “FEELING” courtesy of the limbic system which tells you to avoid that situation….fear usually.

Now consider…..what kind of future experience simulations do you run on a day to day basis in your frontal lobe? Ask yourself…are you running simulations of SOLUTIONS (which supply feel-good feelings) or of PROBLEMS? (What kind of feelings do problem simulations make you feel?)

When you consider how immediately your FEELINGS respond to those simulations, I sure hope you’re taking on board how important it is to use your frontal lobe future experience simulator positively? That’s just SMART. So, very simply then, when you use your imagination to simulate a future event you want to be imagining how it might look when it goes well, not how it would look if everything went wrong!  Now visualise it and rehearse it in your mind. This may be simple as a principle but it's an extremely important part of anxiety management. Make it a habit. 

I offer one to one solution focused therapy in Bristol and Bath. If you would like to book an appointment please contact me.

Disclaimer: This article is given for information purposes only. The author cannot be held responsible for any effects arising from the use of the information contained herein, and any use of the information in this article is used entirely at the risk of the user.  Persons with poor mental health should not consider using these exercises but should refer themselves to their GP for assistance.

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Copyright John Crawford 2003-2012