What Is Psychodynamic Therapy?

May 10, 2024

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy used to treat mental health conditions. It's actually the most commonly referenced type of therapy in pop culture, often linked to the phrase 'how does that make you feel?' In today's mental health practices, it has ironically become much less widely used than other types of therapy. The most common therapeutic methods used today are interpersonal therapy (IPT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

With psychodynamic therapy, the goal is to understand how past experiences influence current behaviors. Therapies like CBT and IPT are used to eliminate symptoms of disorders, while psychodynamic therapy's goal is to foster an understanding of how those disorders developed in the first place.

Defining Psychodynamic Therapy

Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy are based on behaviors. They aim to help patients stop engaging in behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms that cause harm to them and those around them. Psychodynamic therapy, on the other hand, isn't based on external behaviors. Instead, it focuses on what happens inside the patient's head before anything is externalized. It analyzes their emotional and mental processes. The theory is by helping clients find patterns and causes for their behavior, they can gain self-awareness and insight.

This clarity can help them to break the pattern in the future. One of the core aspects of psychodynamic therapy is the theory that early experiences have extremely strong influences over how an individual's emotions and thoughts develop. The client is meant to find the puzzle pieces that help them understand themselves, and then turn those puzzle pieces into a more positive identity.

Similarities To Other Therapies

Psychodynamic therapy has some similarities and differences with other commonly used therapies. It's very similar to psychoanalytic therapy, which is a kind of in-depth talk therapy that attempts to bring deeply buried or unconscious thoughts into the conscious mind, allowing patients to examine their repressed emotions. However, psychodynamic therapy tends to be shorter in both the frequency and duration of sessions, and it has a greater focus on the patient's relationship to themselves than to their therapist.

By contrast, cognitive behavioral therapy is based on symptoms and the learning of skills to stop problematic behaviors. Rather than feeling the need to choose CBT or psychodynamic therapy, a healthy treatment plan might involve both types of therapy in conjunction. With CBT, the patient explores their problematic behaviors and receives important information about how to cope. With psychodynamic therapy, the patient is given a better understanding of themselves, their thoughts, their emotions, and their overall identity. These two things can exist in conjunction without one undermining the other.

When It Is Used

Psychodynamic therapy is most often used as a treatment method for depression and other debilitating psychological disorders. It's particularly recommended for patients who can't find meaning in their lives, and who struggle to maintain or form personal relationships. Research indicates psychodynamic therapy is also effective when applied to social anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and addiction. With depression, the goal is often to understand why these feelings are persisting. The theory is formative experiences may have caused patients to become detached from the world and those around them, especially in cases of child neglect or abuse.

Addiction is often a way of self-medicating another mood disorder, but the form of self-medication might have subconscious roots that can be found in memory. With disordered eating, an affected individual might have internalized body image issues at a very young age because of their parents or the media. Social anxiety disorder is sometimes rooted in a fear of a past embarrassment or painful interaction repeating itself. Isolating these formative memories can help patients work through the trauma of them and start to move on.

Goals Of Psychodynamic Therapy

With any form of therapy, the client should set specific goals before beginning. A depressed client might set a goal of finding a hobby that brings them pleasure, while an individual with social anxiety might set a goal of having an impromptu conversation with a stranger. The client goals should be progress-based; when the client achieves them, it should be a measurement of the therapy's efficacy. On a more abstract note, though, psychodynamic therapy's goal is to help the client become more self-aware and to help them understand how their current feelings are influenced by their past experiences.

The premise is that unresolved conflicts and significant or traumatic events can unconsciously influence how an individual's mind works now. There's a goal of helping clients recognize patterns they previously hadn't acknowledged. When they see those patterns and understand what causes them, it's much easier to break said patterns.

What Patients Can Expect

A psychodynamic therapy session is built on trust between the patient and therapist. The therapist's job is to create a safe, controlled environment where the patient can explore their thoughts and share without fear. Rather than planning the sessions beforehand, the direction of the session is usually dictated by the patient's current feelings. The therapist will encourage patients to discuss their feelings, fears, desires, and emotions with minimal interruption. Throughout this discussion, behavioral patterns and formative events will both emerge from the unconscious mind.

Patients might remember things they hadn't before or make new emotional connections. The sessions may be intense, especially if repressed trauma is touched on. The therapist will talk patients through their remembered experiences and behaviors, helping them understand how these things affect their life now. Once there's an understanding of the root cause, the patient and their therapist will come up with techniques to confront these issues in a healthy way.

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