What is a problem? This can be defined as ‘a present state of facing a particular difficulty without having found an effective solution’. Problems can be of a practical nature (e.g. difficulties with fractious colleagues) or of an emotional nature (e.g. guilt about being off work with illness), though, in practice, these two elements, the practical and emotional, frequently overlap. For example, a person who is depressed (emotional problem) about losing his job (practical problem) sees himself as a failure; this self-image is reinforced by his reluctance to look for another job. He gradually withdraws from others and takes solace in heavy alcohol use. This example can be seen as one of problem-creation, i.e. the person’s initial difficulties are added to by the adoption of a counterproductive strategy (though the person’s internal experience might suggest it is the right response to make in the circumstances).
In the stress management/problem-solving literature, two important forms of coping have been described: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping (Lazarus, 1981; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; Lazarus, 1999). Problem-focused coping tackles stressful situations in order to change or modify them while emotion-focused coping addresses the emotional distress associated with these situations. If a situation is viewed as unchangeable, then emotion-focused coping is the most realistic strategy to pursue; this is achieved by helping the individual to alter the meaning he attaches to a situation (in the above example, the person decides that losing his job is part of the ‘short-term contract culture’ rather than as a result of personal deficiencies). Gilbert (2000) observes that problem-solving therapies or techniques are often used with people who are