What is Psychodynamic Therapy?

Core principles

A psychodynamic therapist helps you explore your thoughts, emotions, past experiences, and beliefs in order to assess your current problems and analyze the behavior patterns you’ve developed over the course of your life. Once you acknowledge your own recurring patterns, you’ll learn to recognize the avoidance techniques and defensive behaviors you use as coping mechanisms. You can then do what’s necessary to change these patterns.

Psychodynamic therapy aims to find the psychological root of your emotional distress. Using self-examination, self-reflection and the therapist-client relationship, unhelpful patterns are examined in depth.

Your therapist will encourage and assist you in describing your feelings and putting them into words. Those feelings may be threatening, troubling or contradictory, and you might not recognize or accept them at first (this is how psychodynamic therapy differs from the cognitive focus of CBT, which emphasizes thoughts and beliefs over feelings). Yet this type of therapy also takes into account that the ability to understand and explain your problems doesn’t necessarily solve them—intellectual and emotional insight are not the same. Emotional insight is manifested at a much deeper level, and is what ultimately enables change.

The client-therapist relationship is crucial to psychodynamic therapy, as it can give the therapist firsthand knowledge of how the client interacts with others. The concept of transference—transferring feelings from, say, a parent to the therapist—can also demonstrate the effects of early-life relationships on someone later in life. This window into interpersonal relations allows clients to recognize the part they’ve played in establishing counterproductive patterns, and give them the power to change that dynamic.

Common uses

Psychodynamic psychotherapy effectively treats many mental health issues, from depression to panic- and stress-related physical symptoms and anxiety. The psychodynamic approach tends to work best when treating more specific problems (such as anxiety-related issues like phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder).

There are, however, particular types of people who respond better than most—those who are genuinely open to self-exploration, and seek to know themselves as well as relieve their symptoms. They embrace self-reflection and truly want to understand why they behave as they do.

Someone who continues to choose abusive partners, for example, may be conscious of the need to learn how to break this harmful pattern. If that client is willing to fully commit themselves to psychodynamic therapy, they will likely see and feel the benefits within the first few months, and according to American Psychological Association research, long after treatment has ended.