Can psychodynamic psychotherapy improve your mental well-being?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated January 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to studies, over 400 modalities and approaches to therapy exist. Deciding on a type of counseling can be challenging with so many options available, and some people may feel unsure about how to start the search for a therapist. One popular type of therapy is psychodynamic psychotherapy, a talk therapy inspired by historic psychologists. Learning more about how psychodynamic therapy might benefit you can help you make an informed decision about your care.

Psychodynamic therapy can help you find meaning in your life

What is psychodynamic therapy?

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is a type of talk therapy and behavioral therapy based on psychodynamic theory, meaning it is often conducted by a therapist who talks to a client to understand their symptoms, concerns, or thoughts. A psychodynamic therapist may try to help clients understand the underlying causes of symptoms prompted by work, relationship, or health factors.

It is similar to psychoanalytic therapy, a type of counseling popularized by psychologists like Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis is an in-depth method used to encourage participants to freely verbally express their thoughts, dreams, urges, and ideas. This therapy often focuses on how clients react and interact with the world around them and their subconscious minds. Unlike other forms of therapy, like cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy is not short-term and often dives deeply into various areas of psychology. 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychodynamic therapy focuses on self-expression, self-examination, and cognitive function. The American Psychological Association notes that the goal of sessions is often to help the client lead a more fulfilling life or meet their personal desires. 

How is psychodynamic therapy used?

Many individuals undergoing psychodynamic psychotherapy may experience ongoing discussions with their therapist about their thoughts, ideas, emotions, and beliefs. It can be used to treat mental illness or address daily stressors like school, work, or family relationships. Within sessions, clients will use self-reflection to answer their questions, with the counselor's guidance and their insight into current psychological research. 

Is free association used in psychodynamic therapy?

Free association is a technique where a therapist states a word or concept, and the client responds with a word, thought, or image that pops into their mind after being prompted. Afterward, they may use self-reflection or consult with their therapist to further understand the meaning of their thoughts. Dream association might also be utilized in this type of treatment. In this approach, the therapist asks about the client's dreams and helps them make assumptions about their meanings. 

How can psychodynamic therapy benefit me?

A primary concept in many psychodynamic psychotherapy sessions is self-esteem. Through exploring the inner workings of the mind and how specific memories might impact an individual, that individual may start to recognize their abilities to make inferences and solve problems. According to the American Psychological Association, improved self-esteem may be beneficial for addressing symptoms of common mental health conditions like depression.

Psychodynamic therapists may believe in the concept of repressed memories or emotions. Through this type of therapy, you might identify areas you didn't previously consider working through in other forms of therapy. You may partake in this through a process of acknowledging and understanding and then expressing feelings. Studies have found that suppressing emotions can worsen physical and emotional health, so being able to identify and label your emotions may be beneficial. 

In addition, psychodynamic psychotherapy focuses on the present and releasing a client from past experiences that hold them back. They can learn how their past impacts their present reality and work with the therapist to develop a healthy treatment plan for their future. The therapist can also offer coping mechanisms for the client to practice in session and at home. 

When would psychodynamic therapy not be beneficial?

This type of treatment is not necessarily beneficial for every client. As it is a historical treatment, it forms the basis of modern talk therapy. However, many of its concepts are controversial in modern psychology. You might not benefit from this type of therapy if you are experiencing psychosis, schizophrenia, mania, delusions, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Free association may be associated with false memories, which are memories imposed by a mental health professional "discovered" in therapy that clients may not have actually experienced. False memories can cause individuals to feel that they have committed a crime or that someone in their life has harmed them in a way that they have not. 

Several other types of therapy are prevalent in modern society, including the following: 

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) 

  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) 

  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP) 

  • Person-centered therapy 

  • Gestalt therapy 

  • Equine-assisted therapy 

  • Rapid eye movement and desensitization reprocessing therapy (EMDR

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How to find a psychodynamic therapist

There are several methods of finding a psychodynamic therapist. With the advancement of technology, psychodynamic therapy online has given a way to that world easier than ever before. You can start by searching online in your area or asking your primary care physician for a referral. Although psychodynamic psychotherapy was once popular, many therapists now practice CBT in place of it. You may search for a while to find a professional who practices it. 

Once you have found a potential therapist, ensure the psychologist you're considering is licensed and experienced. You can verify a psychologist's licensing through your state licensing board or ask them about their credentials during your intake session. Licensing lets you know someone has received the education and clinical hours required to support clients. 

Next, look for experience in the area that you're struggling with. If you are coming to a therapist to discuss anxiety, it can be beneficial to meet with someone who has treated anxiety in the past and understands standard effective methods of support. 

How to address your initial therapy session

Once you meet with your therapist, you may benefit from bringing a list of questions, symptoms, or concerns to discuss. If you're uncomfortable telling vulnerable details during the first session, you can ask your therapist to lead with guiding questions and advice. 

While you discuss your reasons for attending therapy, ensure you feel comfortable with the provider and that their space could provide healing benefits to you. If you feel disrespected, disregarded, or uncomfortable, it might mean that you'd benefit from a different provider. Talking to a well-trained therapist may not be beneficial if you do not feel comfortable opening up to them. 

A few questions you can ask your new therapist include the following: 

  • How does your approach to psychodynamic therapy differ from other psychologists? 

  • Do you prefer to lead sessions or let the client lead? 

  • What shows you that therapy has been a success? 

  • What topics do you generally hope to discuss in therapy? 

  • Are there any specific techniques you believe in? 

  • Have you treated my symptoms before? 

  • How long have you been practicing? 

  • Where are you licensed? 

  • Can I expect a certain number of sessions for general treatment with you?

Psychodynamic therapy can help you find meaning in your life

Counseling options 

Starting the search for a psychodynamic therapist can be overwhelming for some. However, there are various counseling options available to you. Although historically, this type of treatment was carried out in a clinical setting while a client lay on a couch and discussed their thoughts with a quiet psychologist taking notes, modern therapy can be unique and personalized to the client's needs. 

Many clients are uncomfortable with the barriers that in-person therapy can bring. Some might feel most comfortable at home, and others may not be able to afford traditional sessions. In these cases, partaking in psychodynamic therapy online can be beneficial. With online therapy, clients can interact with a psychologist from anywhere in the world with an internet connection and can choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions. 

In addition, one meta-review of 17 studies found that internet-based interventions can be more effective than traditional in-person options in addressing and treating symptoms of depressive disorders, among other concerns. If you're interested in trying an online platform, you can sign up for a website like BetterHelp, which can match you with a therapist within 24 to 48 hours. 

Takeaway

Psychodynamic therapy is a historical treatment approach involving practices like free association, dream interpretation, and free discussion. If you're interested in trying this form of treatment or learning more about the efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy, you may be able to reach a therapist in your area or sign up online for immediate support. Although psychology has evolved since Freud's first debut in the industry, psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapy practices have continued to benefit a range of individuals. Consider reaching out to a therapist to gain further insight into these techniques and schedule an initial consultation. 

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