What is Psychodynamic Therapy?

Published on: 27 Jun 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW
therapy session in a room with large windows

Updated on 4/20/2022

Whether you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, panic disorder, stress-related physical issues, or any other mental health challenge, it can be helpful to know there are therapy treatments available to help you heal.

Among the many psychotherapy options out there is psychodynamic therapy — a proven form of talk therapy designed to help you experience relief from certain mental or emotional stress. Psychodynamic therapy is rooted in the idea that present-day problems are connected to unconscious conflicts from your past experience. In order to overcome the pain you’re feeling, it’s essential to identify where the unknown roots stem from.

Psychodynamic therapy can help.

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Psychodynamic therapy uses many of the same concepts as psychoanalysis, such as self-discovery and free association, but it takes a unique, modern approach towards applying them in treatment. It can be beneficial in managing a variety of mental health conditions. Beyond that, many people find psychodynamic therapy to be a useful, effective tool to better understand themselves, so they can live a rewarding, joyful life. 

Read on to learn more about what psychodynamic therapy treats and how it works. We’ll delve into goals you can reach and address if it’s a style of therapy that might be good for you and your needs. 

What Does Psychotherapy Treat?

If you’re experiencing depression or other mental health conditions, psychodynamic therapy might be an effective option for treatment. It’s commonly suggested in combination with medication or other treatments. The most common mental health conditions that psychodynamic therapy can help you manage include:

How Does Psychotherapy Work?

Psychodynamic therapy focuses on exploring past relationships in your life to give you a better understanding of why you might have developed current challenges and unhealthy emotional patterns. While it’s similar to psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapy is preferred by some because treatment sessions can be shorter in total duration and less frequent. Some courses of treatment can be around 1 hour, once or twice a week, for up to a year, depending on how significant your condition is.  

Your work through psychodynamic therapy can help you:

  • Identify patterns in your relationships and your behavior. This allows you to be more aware of your actions and their likely consequences. 
  • Explore and understand emotions so you can glean useful insight into your emotional experiences and become able to see how they’ve affected your life. 
  • Improve relationships in all areas of your life by understanding more about how you respond to others and how your reactions might be impacting your relationships. 

You’ll review certain life challenges during treatment, including your thoughts, emotions, early-life experiences, and deeply held beliefs. This discovery will help you get to the core of your emotional suffering. Over time, it can ultimately help you lead a healthier life

Psychodynamic therapy can be used for: 

  • Individuals
  • Couples
  • Families
  • Group therapy

The hallmarks of psychodynamic therapy include self-reflection and self-examination. As such, the therapist-patient relationship plays a vital role in your healing. During your treatment, you’ll learn to recognize recurring emotional patterns (like defense mechanisms), and then use your insight to help change unhealthy patterns.

This form of therapy is proven effective in treating a wide range of mental health condition symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. According to the American Psychological Association, the benefits of psychodynamic therapy continue long after treatment has ended.

“Psychotherapy (talk therapy) can work well when the therapist and client are aligned on your overall goals for what you want to get out of therapy. If you feel as though you are not making the kind of progress you want to make, feel free to bring this up with your therapist to discuss further and get their feedback. Then, together, you can see if it would make sense to re-prioritize your goals, or try something different to help you get closer to your goals.”

Talkspace Therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Goals of Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy can be a successful tool in helping you reach your goals for improved mental health. You’ll work to enhance the level of insight you have in terms of how you think, feel, and act. 

Improve relationships

Psychodynamic therapy can help you improve the relationships you have in your life. The work you do in your sessions can help you understand the dynamics of your relationships and how you interact with others. You might focus on things like:

  • Being able to express what you need
  • Consciously selecting partners who are more emotionally available to fulfill you
  • Learning how to set healthy boundaries

Identify patterns

The first step in changing an unhealthy thought or behavior pattern is identifying it. You can accomplish this in therapy. Once you become aware of the patterns that contribute to negative outcomes, you can learn how to change your thought processes or reactions.

Be more mindful of your choices

The choices you make can have dire consequences on your life. When you practice being mindful and present, you’re learning to put consideration into your actions, words, and thoughts, as opposed to being immediately reactive in an unhealthy manner. Because the past can impact present behavior, it is critical to consider your choices and actions. 

Put the past in the past

While it might be tempting to assume that because psychodynamic therapy focuses on the past, it can reinforce or dwell on it, the truth is you can use your past as a roadmap for what’s happening in your life now. The result, then, is you can find a way to let go of trauma, disappointment, or anything else that you’ve been holding onto that’s affecting your present life.

Types of Psychodynamic Therapy

Depending on the condition, severity, and symptoms you’re hoping to treat, some types of psychodynamic therapy may be more appropriate, and effective, than others. Here are a few common types you might consider. 

Dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT)

Dynamic interpersonal therapy is a specialized form of therapy that was originally designed specifically to treat mood disorders. During a 16-session program, you’ll focus on how specific patterns in your relationship can result in negative outcomes.

Brief psychodynamic therapy

Brief psychodynamic therapy offers frequent, typically 1 to 2 times a week, sessions with a therapist over the course of several months.

Long-term psychodynamic therapy

Long-term psychodynamic therapy is conducted over the course of at least 2 years. It’s been found effective in treating several mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Additionally, some promising research has shown that long-term psychodynamic therapy can be effective in treating depression when other types of treatment haven’t helped.

Psychodynamic family therapy

Psychodynamic family therapy is often a long-term process that might be effective when there are consistent, chronic problems or issues in a family. It can be particularly useful for families who’ve experienced extreme trauma, and will help each family member explore their history to identify how their past is affecting them.

Psychodynamic art or music therapy

Art and music therapy are more nontraditional forms of psychodynamic therapy that use the creativity of art and music to help you express your feelings, thoughts, and emotions. It’s a non-structured form of therapy, where you are in charge of your sessions. 

Art and music therapy tend to be particularly effective for people who are shy or who find it difficult to talk or express themselves.

Is Psychodynamic Therapy Right for You?

If you’re wondering if psychodynamic therapy might be a good option for you to explore, you can ask yourself several questions. Your answers can help you better determine if this might be a therapeutic technique worth looking more into. For example, are you trying to:

  • Break a habit of repeating unhealthy patterns?
  • Better understand yourself?
  • Become more adept at feeling, really feeling, your emotions?
  • Find a path toward establishing healthy relationships?
  • Figure out how to make better decisions for yourself?
  • Learn how to address your needs?

If any of these sound like things you want to work on, psychodynamic therapy might be a good fit. Additionally, if you’ve been diagnosed with any of the following mental health conditions, this therapy technique is proven in multiple studies as an effective way to manage symptoms and heal from your pain. 

  • Depression — Studies have shown that psychodynamic therapy might be just as effective in treating depression as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Panic disorder — Research suggests that in just 12 to 14 weeks of panic-focused psychodynamic therapy, you might see a more than 40% reduction in symptoms.
  • Personality disorders — A meta-analysis of psychodynamic therapy treatments found that this form of therapy is superior to controls in improving some of the major core personality disorder symptoms.
  • PTSD — A study comparing the commonly used cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to psychodynamic therapy in treating people with PTSD found there are no significant differences between the two approaches to treatment. The results suggest psychodynamic therapy is at least as effective as CBT in treating PTSD. 
  • Social anxiety disorder — Some research has looked at the preference for psychodynamic therapy that’s done online in comparison to internet based cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) to treat social anxiety disorder (SAD). Results didn’t show a staggering preference one way or the other. This can be interpreted to mean that online psychodynamic therapy, like online platforms such as Talkspace offer, can likely be a viable, effective way to treat social anxiety disorder. Online therapy can also be convenient for an individual to conduct a therapy session for their comfort place. 
  • Somatic disorders — Meta-analysis looking at 17 controlled, randomized trials show psychodynamic therapy is effective in reducing somatic symptoms.  

The research makes it clear. Psychodynamic therapy can be a beneficial form of therapy with long term results that can help you change your life for the better. While it may be difficult to discuss with another individual, opening up about a past experience, mental health condition or painful feelings and emotions with a professional can be beneficial. 

“Psychodynamic therapy can be a helpful way to understand how your past experiences might be impacting your life today. If you’re looking for a new therapist, ask if they’re trained in psychodynamic therapy, and inquire about what working together could look like.”

Talkspace Therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

If you think psychodynamic therapy might be effective in treating your anxiety, panic, stress-related physical issues, or other mental health issues, there are easy ways to get started on your journey with online therapy from Talkspace. Seeking a psychodynamic therapist can be a small, but essential step for treatment. 

Sources:

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4. McCarthy K, Chambless D, Solomonov N, Milrod B, Barber J. Twelve-Month Outcomes Following Successful Panic-Focused Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or Applied Relaxation Training for Panic Disorder. J Clin Psychiatry. 2018;79(5). doi:10.4088/jcp.17m11807. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30256548/. Accessed March 25, 2022.

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7. Lindegaard T, Hesslow T, Nilsson M et al. Internet-based psychodynamic therapy vs cognitive behavioural therapy for social anxiety disorder: A preference study. Internet Interv. 2020;20:100316. doi:10.1016/j.invent.2020.100316. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7118309/. Accessed March 25, 2022.

8. Abbass A, Lumley M, Town J et al. Short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy for functional somatic disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis of within-treatment effects. J Psychosom Res. 2021;145:110473. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2021.110473. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022399921001185. Accessed March 25, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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