What’s your problem? How to banish gloomy thoughts

An approach called ‘solution-focused therapy’ can be very beneficial to people who get bogged down by their problems

When thinking about a problem, it’s helpful to ask what was the exception – in other words when did you not have the problem? Photograph: iStock

He had been on a summer holiday but had lost much of his hoped-for relaxation to thoughts about past disappointments and future anxieties. Drinking cheered him up and he did too much of that. When he returned to work he didn’t feel refreshed and the summer holiday was now added to his list of disappointments.

That happened a long time ago, but I don’t doubt that many people today also find that lying by the pool can feel like laying out the welcome mat for gloomy thoughts.

What’s happening is that a part of the brain called the “default mode network” has kicked in. What goes on in this network is exactly as described by my friend: wandering around internal experiences of past events or disappointments and getting lost in thoughts of the future.

It seems to happen quite naturally and that’s why it’s called the default mode. A lot of us spend too much time in it.


For most of us, stepping out of default mode into its opposite – the real world – requires making a choice. People who choose to practise mindfulness spend a lot less time in default mode but that isn’t the only way to do it. Giving your attention to a task will also get you there.

Insights from an approach called “solution-focused therapy” can be very beneficial to anybody who finds themselves lost in that gloomy network.

As the name implies, solution-focused therapy is about solutions rather than problems. Hardcore solution-focused people don’t even want to know what your problem is – all they’re interested in is moving to a solution, though that strikes me as a bit extreme.

You can use the approach by asking yourself some simple questions.

The first concerns exceptions. When thinking about a problem, it’s helpful to ask what was the exception – in other words when did you not have the problem? So if your partner is always angry with you when you roll in late for a meal, say, the exception might be times when you brought her or him with you. Or maybe the exception was when you actually let them know you were running late. That’s a better guide to what to do next than mulling over how unreasonable your partner is.

Doing more of what succeeds

The second question concerns doing more of what succeeds. Suppose you feel overburdened at work but the exception was that time when you got the organisation to assign someone to help you with a demanding project. The question then is, can you ask for more help?

There’s also the ‘instead’ question. If you’re sitting there making yourself miserable over an exam you’ve got to retake in August, the ‘instead’ question is: what could you be doing instead of sitting there making yourself miserable? The answer is obvious.

These questions revolve around the issue of how to make things better, instead of just feeling bad about them. Suppose you’re getting unfit and putting on too much weight as the years go by. Lamentation isn’t going to be useful here unless it’s a springboard to future action.

This is when you use these solution-focused questions. When were you fit and what were you doing to make yourself fit? Can you do that again? If you already do a little bit of it, could you increase the frequency? What could you do instead of whatever you do now that has contributed to your lack of fitness?

If you want to make a list of the general questions it’s: what was the exception to whatever you’re unhappy about, can you do more of it, what could you do instead of what you’re doing now?

If this sounds simplistic, remember that even in our complicated age, almost all the things we do for our physical and emotional health are simple. For example, walking briskly for half an hour a day is, for most people, simple but has many benefits.

My friend could have had a better holiday and a better quality of life afterwards if he had know about, and used, those very simple, solution-focused questions.

– Padraig O'Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).