Psychoanalytic therapy is a type of treatment based upon the theories of Sigmund Freud, who is considered one of the forefathers of psychology and the founder of psychoanalysis. This therapy explores how the unconscious mind influences thoughts and behaviours, with the aim of offering insight and resolution to the person seeking therapy.
Psychoanalytic therapy tends to look at experiences from early childhood to see if these events have affected the individual’s life, or potentially contributed to current concerns. This form of therapy is considered a long-term choice and can continue for weeks, months or even years depending on the depth of the concern being explored.
Differing from several other therapy types, psychoanalytic therapy aims to make deep-seated changes in personality and emotional development. On this page we will look into the history of psychoanalytic therapy, how it works and what concerns it can help with.
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The theories behind psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy come from famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. During the late 1800s Freud began studying with Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, a neurologist who used hypnosis to treat women suffering from what at the time was called hysteria. Charcot found that by talking to his patients about past traumatic experiences, symptoms lessened.
When Freud continued his work apart from Charcot he went on to develop his own method of 'talk therapy'. In his work Freud established therapeutic techniques such as free association, dream analysis and transference, many of which remain central to psychoanalysis today.
Critically, Freud's theories (especially those to do with sexuality and women) have come under scrutiny, however much of his work remains influential in the world of psychotherapy.
Assumptions of psychoanalytic therapy
It can be helpful to know what assumptions psychoanalysts work from when considering a therapy type. While each therapist will work in different ways according to the needs of the individual seeking therapy, many work on the following assumptions:
- Psychological problems are rooted in the unconscious.
- Manifest symptoms are caused by hidden or 'latent' disturbances.
- Typical causes for psychological upset include unresolved issues during development or repressed trauma.
- Treatment looks to bring repressed conflicts to the surface where individuals can deal with it.
By working through and understanding conflicts, this type of therapy aims to change the participant on a deeper level.
How does psychoanalytic therapy work?
Psychoanalytic therapy is insight driven and therefore looks to foster change by helping you to understand your past and how events from your early life could be affecting you now. Sessions will vary according to where you are in the course of your therapy, but much of the time will be spent talking freely to your therapist in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
The psychoanalyst will listen to your concerns and look out for patterns or certain events that may hold significance. In this type of therapy it is believed that unconscious feelings and childhood events play a key role in mental distress.
As well as listening to you discuss your experiences, your therapist may use other techniques to help identify potential causes for your concerns. Such techniques may include:
Free association involves you talking about whatever comes into your mind without censoring or editing the flow of memories/ideas. Your therapist will encourage you to speak freely to help you return to an earlier emotional state so they can better understand any recurrent patterns of conflict you may be experiencing.
Transference relates to the way you may be transferring thoughts or feelings connected to influential figures in your life (for example your parents or siblings) onto your therapist. While this may not happen in every case, if it does your therapist should discuss transference with you to help you gain further insight into the way you deal with people in your daily life.
A key element of psychoanalytic therapy is interpreting and 'reading between the lines'. While your therapist is likely to stay relatively quiet and allow you to talk freely, they will occasionally interject with thoughts or interpretations of the topics you discuss. Your psychoanalyst may also ask you about your dreams; Freud wrote a lot on the subject of dream analysis and believed that dreams were important resources for understanding the unconscious.
Applications of psychoanalytic therapy
Psychoanalytic therapy can be used by those with a specific emotional concern as well as those who simply want to explore themselves. Understanding why we are the way we are often brings with it a sense of well-being and a stronger sense of self. As psychoanalytic therapy is considered one of the more long-term therapy types, it is perhaps less useful for those seeking quick, solution-focused therapies. Psychoanalytic therapy is a gradual process that takes time, however the results can be life changing.
Some believe due to the nature of the therapy, psychoanalytic work is better suited to more general concerns such as anxiety, relationship difficulties, sexual issues or low self-esteem. Phobias, social shyness and difficulties sleeping are further examples of areas that could be addressed within psychoanalytic therapy.
Critics have pointed out that the therapy may not be as useful to those with more specific or obsession-based concerns such as obsessive compulsive behaviour, as you may be too concerned by your actions to participate fully.
The premise of psychoanalytic therapy can also be applied in a group setting. This is called group analysis and was established in the 1940s by S.H Foulkes. This form of therapy brings together psychoanalytic techniques with interpersonal functions. You can find out more about the group dynamic on our dedicated group therapy page.
Speaking to a doctor or counsellor about the issues you are facing should help you establish which therapy approach would work best for you.