Psychodynamic therapy - or psychodynamic counselling as it is also known - is a therapeutic approach that embraces the work of all analytic therapies. Its roots lie predominantly in Freud's psychoanalysis approach, but Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank and Melanie Klein are all widely recognised for further developing the concept and application of psychodynamics.
Like psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy, the aim of psychodynamic therapy is to bring the unconscious mind into consciousness - helping individuals to unravel, experience and understand their true, deep-rooted feelings in order to resolve them. It takes the view that our unconscious holds onto painful feelings and memories, which are too difficult for the conscious mind to process. In order to ensure these memories and experiences do not surface, many people will develop defences, such as denial and projections. According to psychodynamic therapy, these defences will often do more harm than good.
Whilst it shares the same core principles of psychoanalysis, psychodynamic counselling is typically far less intensive - focusing primarily on immediate problems and attempting to find a quicker solution. It does however tend to provide the same benefits - helping people with a range of psychological disorders to make significant changes to how they make decisions and interact with others.
On this page
How does psychodynamic therapy work?
As briefly aforementioned, the psychodynamic approach is guided by the core principle that the unconscious mind harbours deep-rooted feelings and memories that can affect our behaviour. Psychodynamic therapists will work according to this, in context-specific ways, catering their techniques and therapy style to the individual. They maintain an equal relationship with their client, adopting the attitude of unconditional acceptance and aiming to develop a trusting relationship. This encourages the client to open up and explore unresolved issues and conflict hidden in their unconscious that are affecting their mood and behaviour.
In order to help the client understand what their unconscious disturbances are and how their mind works, psychodynamic therapists will draw on similar techniques used in psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy. These are listed below:
This technique involves the client talking freely to the therapist - saying the first things that come to mind. There is no attempt to shape ideas before they are said, nor do clients tell things in a linear story structure. The spontaneity allows for true thoughts and feelings to emerge without any concern for how painful, illogical or silly they may sound to the therapist.
This is the redirection of feelings for a significant person - especially those unconsciously retained from childhood - onto the therapist. Clients will often feel an erotic attraction towards their therapist, but this transference can manifest in many other forms such as hatred, mistrust, extreme dependence and rage. Through recognition and exploration of this relationship, the client can begin to understand their feelings and resolve any conflicts with figures from their childhood.
The therapist is likely to stay relatively quiet throughout therapy, but will occasionally interject with thoughts or interpretations of the topics the client chooses to discuss. The application of these interpretations will depend on the therapists awareness of the client's mental state and capacity to integrate material that they are not aware of.
Ultimately, it is up to the therapist to help clients learn new patterns of behaviour and ways of thinking that promote personal development and growth - helping them to overcome any limitations caused by unconscious feelings. Generally this process tends to be quick and solution-focused, and sessions will take place once a week, lasting for around 50 minutes. Psychodynamic therapy seeks to resolve more immediate problems.
Short-term psychodynamic therapy
Since the 1950s a shorter, more intense type of psychodynamic therapy has emerged. Following its introduction in a series of workshops, the method of short-term psychodynamic therapy (also know as intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy - ISTDP) was eventually developed in the 1960s and 1970s by psychiatrist Habib Davanloo. Davanloo's aim was to enhance the efficacy of psychoanalysis and minimise the length of treatment.
While the primary goal of short-term psychodynamic therapy is very similar to psychoanalysis (and thus psychodynamic therapy), rather than acting as a neutral observer of a client's personal development, a short-term psychodynamic therapist will be an active advocate of change. They will guide the client through the process by applying non-interpretative techniques including encouragement to feel. This method was essentially founded on Davanloo's discovery that the dynamic unconscious has many layers. His specific interventions allow the therapist to access those layers, and when applied in a specific style and at specific times in the therapeutic process, help the client to overcome unconscious blocks and resistance as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Who can benefit from psychodynamic therapy?
The psychodynamic approach is designed to help individuals with a wide range of problems, but tends to be most effective in treating more specific issues such as anxiety disorders (i.e. phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders). There does however tend to be a certain type of individual who responds particularly well to psychodynamic therapy.
These individuals are genuinely interested in exploring themselves, and seek self-knowledge in addition to symptom relief. They will have the capacity for self-reflection and a natural curiosity for their internal life and why they behave the way they do. For example, someone who keeps choosing abusive partners may want to learn how to break that pattern by exploring their unconscious conflicts through free association. If a client is willing to commit themselves wholly to psychodynamic therapy, they should see the benefits within the first few months of sessions.
What our experts say
- Three different counselling approaches briefly explained
Warren Cathrine MBACP8th August, 2016
- The counselling relationship
Tom Bailey (MA; Dip CP; Dip Hyp CS)25th July, 2016
- Depression: an unwelcome visitor who will not leave
Helen Swords MA UKCP10th November, 2015
- Dealing with arrogance and grandiosity in therapy
Castle Craig Hospital16th June, 2015
- What is psychodynamic counselling?
Gherardo Della Marta MBACP counsellor in Uxbridge, Camden and Holborn1st January, 2015