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Psychodynamic therapy

Reviewed by Cathy Leeson, SLP

A therapist with a client.

What Is Psychodynamic Therapy?

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy that involves examining the thoughts, feelings, and conflicts that influence behavior. By talking to a professional trained in psychodynamic therapy, a person can learn to understand the unconscious motives that may be driving the way they think, feel, and act. This understanding can prepare the individual to cope with conflict and solve problems more effectively. 

History of Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy was originally based on the theories of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, the unconscious mind is the source of all human behavior. Later, psychologists like Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, and Anna Freud helped develop the therapy into what it is today.

Early psychodynamic therapy was believed to last for years and involve several therapy sessions each week. Today, however, it more often occurs for six months to over a year, depending on each person’s unique mental health concerns and goals for treatment. 

How Does Psychodynamic Therapy Work?

During a psychodynamic therapy session, an individual is encouraged to talk freely with their therapist in a safe environment about whatever comes to mind. This might include certain fears, challenges, dreams, or desires. The individual learns how to express their emotions in a healthier, more effective way.

Through this process, an individual will learn to analyze how past emotions and experiences may be affecting current behaviors, decision-making, and relationships. They can then begin to make positive changes in the thinking patterns that contribute to these areas of concern. 

Uses of Psychodynamic Therapy

Historically, psychodynamic therapy was used to treat depression and anxiety. Today, it can be used to help treat a range of mental health concerns and disorders, including:

  • Depression: Psychodynamic therapy is commonly used to treat the symptoms of depression, helping to find deeper meaning in life and build healthier relationships. 
  • Anxiety: Psychodynamic therapy can be used to address the root cause of anxiety and other uncomfortable feelings such as fear, stress, and worry. 
  • Addiction: Psychodynamic therapy may be beneficial in understanding which past experiences, life choices, and behaviors have contributed to an addiction
  • Eating disorders: Eating disorder behaviors, negative body image, and related mental health concerns may be addressed through the use of psychodynamic therapy. 
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD develops after one or more traumatic events. Psychodynamic therapy can help a person effectively process these events, reducing PTSD symptoms. 

Psychodynamic Therapy vs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Psychodynamic therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are both forms of talk therapy that can help treat a range of mental health conditions. However, the two forms of therapy take different approaches. 

While psychodynamic therapy focuses on processing the past in order to improve the present, CBT focuses on reshaping current negative thought patterns to change behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Psychodynamic therapy puts more emphasis on finding the root cause of present mental health concerns, diving into past experiences. On the other hand, CBT is more focused on addressing present-day challenges.  

Both psychodynamic therapy and CBT can be short-term (lasting less than a year) or long-term  (lasting over a year). A therapist may incorporate both practices into someone’s treatment, depending on their concerns and goals. 

What Is Short-Term Psychodynamic Therapy?

Short-term psychodynamic therapy, also referred to as brief psychodynamic therapy, involves sessions that last for less than a year, typically three to four months. 

Short-term therapy can be beneficial in treating a specific area of a person’s life. An individual may seek therapy when they encounter a problem in a certain area, and once the problem is overcome, they may no longer need therapy.

Examples of situations that may require short-term psychodynamic therapy include:

  • Sexual assault
  • A traffic accident
  • Physical injury
  • A traumatic family event

Psychodynamic Therapy Examples

A therapist can use psychodynamic therapy in many different ways. Therapy may be delivered in the form of:

  • Art therapy: Art therapy involves using artistic expression to process emotions and promote healing. 
  • Music therapy: Music may help accomplish a therapeutic goal, such as relieving stress and improving mood. 
  • Family therapy: Family members learn to improve communication and effectively solve conflicts.
  • Journaling: This is an important tool for exploring past emotions and experiences as well as present worries.

Psychodynamic Therapy Techniques

Some common psychodynamic therapy techniques include:

  • Free association: A therapist presents a word or idea and the individual responds with the first thing that comes to mind. This is done to gain more insight into the unconscious mind. 
  • Dream analysis: Dream analysis involves studying the content of dreams to discover their significance and possible themes.
  • Transference of feelings: Transference occurs when a person projects certain feelings about another, especially from their past, onto the therapist. This can give important clues into how to resolve present conflicts. 

What Are the Goals of Psychodynamic Therapy?

The goals of psychodynamic therapy are to:

  • Build trust: Resolving past experiences in a safe space allows an individual to build more trust into their relationships. 
  • Increase self-awareness: This is accomplished when a person begins to recognize the patterns in their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. 
  • Understand emotions:  Psychodynamic therapy can help someone understand their emotions through exploring past experiences. 
  • Improve relationships: A therapist can help an individual understand how they respond to others and how to form healthier relationship patterns.

If you’re struggling with a mental health disorder, psychodynamic therapy may be able to help you explore past experiences, understand your current emotions, and build more meaningful relationships. Find a psychodynamic therapist near you today. 

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.