Psychodynamic therapy takes some of the same ideas as psychoanalysis — like free association and self-discovery — and applies them in an up-to-date way.
Psychodynamic therapy can address a range of mental health conditions by diving deep into the root cause of symptoms. It can also be beneficial for anyone who wants to understand themselves better and live a more fulfilling life.
In psychodynamic therapy, you might learn how your past has shaped your present, so you can move mindfully into the future.
If you’re like most people, your knowledge of psychodynamic therapy comes from a psychology class or its depictions in television and film. If this is the case, your understanding is likely not so accurate. This is because the media and even modern textbooks tend to get it wrong.
Overall, psychodynamic therapy is an effective way to explore the sources of your symptoms and the challenging situations you face.
Psychodynamic therapy investigates the “why” behind our thoughts and actions. It focuses on questions such as “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” and “Why am I feeling this way?”
Unlike cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is highly structured and often comes with between-session homework, psychodynamic therapy tends to be open-ended and excludes worksheets and assignments.
But like CBT, some psychodynamic therapies have manuals that therapists use to guide their sessions.
It’s important to note that both psychodynamic therapy and CBT
Either way, the question isn’t, “Which approach is superior?” The question is, “Which is a better fit for you right now?”
Over the years, psychodynamic therapy has greatly evolved from its psychoanalytic predecessor. Some therapists may use the terms “psychoanalysis” and “psychodynamic therapy” interchangeably.
Unlike “old-school” psychoanalysis, today’s psychodynamic therapy is evidence-backed and time-limited. Sessions are typically 50 minutes long, and they occur one to two times a week for up to a year.
Overall, psychodynamic therapy helps you gain insight into yourself, supporting you in developing a nuanced understanding of how your prior experiences have shaped your current behavior and relationships.
In psychodynamic therapy, you also explore:
All your emotions
You examine the full range of your emotions, including contradictory feelings and feelings that initially make little sense to you.
Patterns that don’t work for you
You work on spotting self-defeating patterns so you can stop replaying them. For example, you might learn that you end relationships before they get too intimate or sabotage yourself at work because of a fear of failure.
You explore how and why you avoid distressing situations — known as your defenses — in order to face them. Confronting stressful experiences and patterns can help you build up strength and resilience.
Your therapist encourages you to say whatever is on your mind, no matter how silly, strange, or unrelated it might initially seem.
Seemingly arbitrary thoughts may actually be anything but. Your daydreams, random thoughts, and fantasies can provide clues into your wants, desires, and fears.
The relationship between you and your therapist is a pivotal part of psychodynamic therapy. How you relate and respond to your therapist usually mirrors how you behave in other relationships.
This means you can work with your therapist in real time to improve certain relationship patterns. For example, you may work on expressing yourself better or speaking up for yourself.
The goals of psychodynamic therapy center on gaining greater insight into your thoughts, feelings, and actions — many of which you might not even be consciously aware of.
Additional goals include:
Making mindful choices
Rather than letting reflexive actions fling you into problematic situations, psychodynamic therapy helps you make deliberate choices. This way you’re in the driver’s seat, fully mindful of what’s going on.
Want to learn more? Here are seven easy ways to practice mindfulness daily.
Getting free of the past
A common misconception is that psychodynamic therapy dwells on the past, rehashing childhood experiences and events for no reason. In reality, psychodynamic therapists use the past strategically to connect the dots to today’s unhelpful patterns.
You realize that certain ways of relating and being that you picked up during your formative years are no longer serving you. Over time, you stop using these damaging scripts to approach new situations.
By understanding how you interact with others and working on these dynamics with your therapist, you start to improve the relationships in your life. For instance, you might get better at:
- voicing your needs
- setting clear-cut boundaries
- choosing emotionally available partners
Your therapist plays a critical role in helping you gain insight and effect change. As mentioned above, how you act with your therapist can often be similar to how you act with other people in your life.
As one expert notes, the same therapist is a different person to each person in therapy. Without even realizing it, your view of your therapist is based on years of personal experiences and expectations. This is known as transference. These in-session interactions help you to improve your relationships outside of therapy.
In addition, a psychodynamic therapist:
- models what healthy relationships look like
- creates a supportive environment in which you’re able to share anything that comes to mind, including difficult feelings and experiences
- helps you explore and question your worldview
- helps you examine your dreams and fantasies for deeper insights
- works with you to develop constructive ways to handle your emotions and challenging situations
Some psychodynamic therapies address specific conditions, such as panic disorder, while others vary by treatment length. Here are a few examples:
Brief psychodynamic therapy
Dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT)
DIT was originally developed to treat mood disorders within the public healthcare system. In this 16-session therapy, you learn how your symptoms relate to specific patterns in your relationships, and over time you work through them.
Psychodynamic art and music therapies
Art and music therapy techniques can help you ease into exploring difficult thoughts and feelings in a safe, supportive, creative way.
Long-term psychodynamic therapy
This type of therapy typically lasts at least 2 years.
Long-term psychodynamic therapy
Multiple studies have found that psychodynamic therapy can treat a variety of mental health conditions, including:
Also, it might help to ask yourself these questions:
- Am I looking to better understand myself?
- Am I repeating patterns that don’t serve me and finding it really difficult to change?
- Are healthy relationships difficult or rare for me?
- Do I have trouble feeling all my emotions?
- Do I find myself making decisions that don’t serve me?
- Do I prefer a highly structured therapy or more open-ended approach?
Psychodynamic therapy can be a powerful treatment for different mental health conditions. It helps to get to the root cause of symptoms and any self-defeating patterns.
Psychodynamic therapy provides you with a fuller, deeper understanding of your thoughts, feelings, and dreams, so you can make positive changes.
To find a psychodynamic therapist, you can start by checking out:
- The American Psychoanalytic Association’s Find An Analyst tool
- Psych Central’s Find a Therapist resource
It can also be helpful to get referrals from your primary care doctor and loved ones, when possible.