Psychodynamic therapy (also known as psychodynamic counselling) is a therapeutic approach that embraces the work of all analytic therapies. While the roots of psychodynamic therapy lie predominantly in Freud’s approach of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank and Melanie Klein are all widely recognised for their involvement in further developing the concept and application of psychodynamics.
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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 stay below the surface, many people will develop defences, such as denial and projections. According to psychodynamic therapy, these defences will often do more harm than good.
While it shares the same core principles of psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapy is typically far less intensive - focusing primarily on immediate problems and attempting to find a quicker solution. Both approaches, however, are said to help people with a range of psychological disorders to make significant changes to how they make decisions and interact with others.
The benefits of psychodynamic therapy
The psychodynamic approach is designed to help individuals with a wide range of problems, though is generally more effective in treating specific issues, such as anxiety, addiction and eating disorders. Primarily used to treat depression, psychodynamic therapy can be particularly beneficial for those who have lost meaning in their lives or have difficulty forming or maintaining personal relationships.
While suitable for everyone, it is said that there is a certain type of individual who responds particularly well to the approach, and benefits more than others. Typically, these types of individuals have a genuine interest in exploring themselves and seeking self-knowledge, as well as relieving symptoms. They will have the capacity for self-reflection, and a natural curiosity for their internal life and their behaviours.
Watch how psychodynamic therapy can help identify the cause of anger.
How does psychodynamic therapy work?
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 client. They maintain an equal relationship with the client, adopting the attitude of unconditional acceptance and aiming to develop a trusting relationship. This encourages them to open up and explore any unresolved issues and conflict hidden in their unconscious that may be affecting their mood and behaviour.
Deep insight into the feelings we act out can be achieved by psychodynamic work. Once we become conscious of our internalised feelings and beliefs, and from where they stem, we no longer need to act them out. Greater internal security and peace then offers us greater freedom.
- Counsellor Mary-Claire Wilson
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, such as free association, therapeutic transference and interpretation.
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Free association is a technique which involves the client talking freely to the therapist. 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. The client can be honest and open, without fear of judgement.
This is the redirection of feelings for a significant person, especially those unconsciously retained from childhood, onto the therapist. Clients may feel an 'erotic attraction' to 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 therapist’s awareness of the client’s mental state and their capacity to integrate material that they are not yet aware of.
The therapist will help the client 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 a session. Of course, this is completely down to you, the client. If you would like more or fewer sessions, speak to your therapist and they will be able to devise a plan that is right for you.
Short-term psychodynamic therapy
Since the 1950s, a more intense, short-term form of psychodynamic therapy has emerged. Originally introduced in a series of workshops, the method of short-term psychodynamic therapy (also known as intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP)) was eventually developed 20 years later by psychoanalyst Habib Davanloo. His 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, rather than acting as a neutral observer of an individual’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 the encouragement to feel - a method founded on Davanloo’s discovery that the dynamic unconscious has many layers.
These specific interventions allow the therapist to access those layers in the client. When applied in a particular way and at a particular time in the therapeutic process, these interventions can help the client to recognise and overcome their unconscious blocks and any resistance as quickly and efficiently as possible.
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