What Is Psychodynamic Therapy?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychodynamic therapy is inspired by psychoanalytic theory and is one of the oldest types of talk therapy. The therapists practicing this form of counseling are often called psychodynamic therapists. When deciding whether to partake in a session of psychodynamic therapy, it can be beneficial to understand how it works.

Could a psychodynamic therapist help you with unresolved issues?

Reviewing psychodynamic therapy

One method of understanding the role of psychodynamic therapists is learning about psychodynamic theory and psychodynamic therapy in their entirety. Psychodynamic therapy is linked to ego psychology and self psychology because of the focus on the client’s inner world, past experiences, and conscious and subconscious thoughts. It also draws from Sigmund Freud’s theory that subconscious thoughts and feelings drive our behaviors and relationships. The focus of this treatment can revolve around past experiences that may have impacted a client's subconscious thoughts, beliefs, and dreams.

In this type of therapy, underlying experiences and emotions are regarded as the root concerns impacting a client in the present day.

In dealing with these emotional challenges with the support of a psychodynamic therapist, the client may experience a series of benefits. For example, they may improve interpersonal relationships, achieve a healthier emotional state, improve their self-esteem, and meet their treatment goals. Although this process may seem simple, psychodynamic therapy can be complex and involves various techniques. 

Techniques and goals

A therapist might use various themes in therapy to help clients make changes and meet goals, including the following. 

The subconscious 

Psychodynamic therapy involves the theory of the unconscious mind, which is part of each person that holds unknown desires, thoughts, beliefs, and painful experiences. Discussing underlying emotions, thoughts, and experiences may be uncomfortable and challenging for clients, so a psychodynamic therapist supports them as they confront these areas. Developing a sound and supportive therapeutic alliance, also known as the patient therapist relationship, is essential for individuals to feel safe enough to discuss innermost thoughts.

In this type of treatment, the therapist can help the client identify, name, and understand challenges impacting their daily functioning so they can partake in coping mechanisms to support them. One of the tasks of a psychodynamic therapist involves in this therapeutic relationship involves the therapist helping clients understand the adverse impacts associated with repressed emotions, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotional pain. Self-reflection can be one of the first steps in these sessions. 

Childhood experiences

When working with a psychodynamic therapist, the events of your childhood may be discussed. Psychodynamic therapists believe early experiences can impact one's outlook, opinions, decisions, and general thoughts. If you don't remember your childhood, you may work on recovering memories or discussing what you think may have occurred. 

Psychodynamic therapists may also reference attachment styles, which are the styles of communication, connection, and support individuals showcase throughout their lives based on how well their psychological and physiological needs were met as infants or children. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, unhealthy childhood attachments can lead to mental health disorders later in life.


Behavioral and cognitive patterns 

Another recurring theme in psychodynamic psychotherapy is patterns. The patterns an individual experiences in life can showcase the themes they frequently experience as an adult. These patterns may involve interpersonal relationship conflicts, reactions to disappointment, and how they treat themselves. Exploring patterns in current life may help psychodynamic therapists understand an individual's past and the people or situations that taught them the patterns. 

What does it look like?

Clients working with psychodynamic therapists may meet with their specialist for about one hour weekly. Open-ended questions and discussions about thoughts, behaviors, and concerns in the client's conscious mind may occur during sessions in the initial stages for the therapist to understand their goals and what areas may be most beneficial to target long-term. 

Clients can develop the ability to take what they are learning from their therapists in sessions and apply it to the real world. However, this process can take weeks, months, or years of working with a psychodynamic therapist. Clients struggling to apply what they learn in sessions can let their therapist know to gain further insight into the process. 

Psychodynamic therapy vs cognitive behavioral therapy

Both cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapies aim to help people gain a better understanding of themselves, their thought processes, and how their thoughts may be affecting their life. Psychodynamic therapy, also known as psychoanalytic psychotherapy,  focuses on how a person’s past and subconscious thoughts may be influencing their present, while CBT may focus more on reframing negative thought patterns. Psychodynamic therapy aims to help individuals heal emotional wounds, create healthier habits, and have a better understanding of oneself; psychodynamic perspectives can be useful for those looking to improve problematic relationship patterns, mental health symptoms, and general emotional distress.

Compared to psychoanalytic therapy, CBT therapy sessions may focus more on providing concrete solutions to problems, looking less at root causes. CBT is frequently used to treat mental health problems like social anxiety disorder, depression, generalized anxiety, and personality disorders.

Potential benefits of this therapy

Clients of psychodynamic types of therapy may experience general life improvements along with a higher quality of self-awareness and an understanding of how past events impact the present. However, it doesn't necessarily mean they won't experience challenges or setbacks. When the goals of psychodynamic therapy are complete, the client may instead feel equipped to manage unexpected or expected challenges. 

Having a higher self-awareness may allow clients to make decisions more conducive to their success in their lives. Success can look different for everyone. For some individuals, a higher self-awareness may mean leaving unhealthy relationships. For others, increased levels of self-awareness may manifest in the form of living a healthier lifestyle. 

When clients undergoing short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy understand how the past impacts the present and feel their therapist has addressed their concerns, they can start to focus on daily life and feel that an amount of resolution has been achieved. It can also help them connect that the decisions they make in the present will become past decisions the next day and that present changes can benefit the future. 

How long does it take?

Many individuals considering working with a psychodynamic therapist may question how long the process lasts or how many sessions are sufficient for the therapy to be effective. However, treatment length is flexible and can depend on each client. Psychodynamic therapy involves weekly or monthly sessions for weeks, months, or years for many people. It can depend on how long it takes for the client to analyze and study events, behavior, and emotions associated with their past or unconscious mind. For clients seeking a shorter-term therapy option, brief psychodynamic therapy is available for treating a single problem; long term psychodynamic therapy is better suited for addressing multiple problems.

The extent of what lies within the subconscious mind may also determine the timeframe of psychodynamic therapy. Clients with less challenging concerns may be able to meet goals faster than those with complex, deep-seated issues which take time to address. For example, discussing a traumatic event may take longer than discussing a temporary conflict. However, how long the session takes does not indicate whether someone is more or less able to make changes and benefit from therapy. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

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Could a psychodynamic therapist help you with unresolved issues?

Counseling options 

Various options are available if you are interested in working with a psychodynamic therapist or any mental health specialist. You can consider searching for a provider online, talking to your doctor for a referral, or asking your family and friends for suggestions. You can also consider alternative forms of treatment, such as online psychodynamic therapy. 

One study on psychodynamic therapy via the internet found that the practice was especially effective in treating symptoms of depression but could be effective for a wide range of mental health challenges and psychological disorders. You can find a therapist specializing in this form of therapy through various online platforms and meet with them from home using phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

If you're interested in meeting with a psychodynamic therapist, consider signing up for a platform like BetterHelp, which offers a growing database of licensed counselors and therapists specializing in many forms of therapy, including psychodynamic therapy. You can sign up in minutes and receive a therapist matched to your preferences within 48 hours. Whether you’re seeking help for mental disorders such as borderline personality disorder or major depressive disorder, or simply looking to connect with a therapist to learn better stress management techniques, BetterHelp can help.
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