What Is Online Psychodynamic Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised that the below article exploring psychodynamic therapy online might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Psychodynamic therapy (PDT) is a form of talk therapy that’s based on the work of psychologist Sigmund Freud, who is considered to be the founder of modern psychoanalysis. This therapy can be used to address various types of mental health challenges. Like many other types of therapy, PDT may be effectively conducted online or in person in most cases, depending on the preference of the individual. Below, we’ll be exploring the components of PDT, how it works, and how you can engage in online psychodynamic therapy yourself.

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Therapy can provide relief from past trauma

What is psychodynamic therapy?

The American Psychological Association defines PDT as a type of therapy that’s characterized by three main components:

  • It sees individuals as reacting to “unconscious forces” and influences
  • It focuses on the processes of change and development
  • It’s primarily concerned with self-understanding, particularly as it pertains to the unconscious mind
The main goal of a psychodynamic therapist is usually to help the client become more self-aware, especially as it relates to the influence of their past experiences on their current behaviors and decisions.

Mental health concerns that psychodynamic therapy may be used for

Again, PDT can be used to address a variety of mental health concerns and conditions. That said, it’s commonly associated with the treatment of a few in particular, including but not limited to:

  • Depression. A 2017 study indicates that psychodynamic therapy can be at least as effective in treating depression as cognitive behavioral therapy, which is one of the most common forms of therapeutic treatment.
  • Social anxiety disorder. Research from 2022 suggests that psychodynamic therapy may result in a “significant reduction” in symptoms of social anxiety disorder.
  • Substance use disorder. Individuals experiencing challenges related to substance use may benefit from psychodynamic therapy, with research indicating that it’s considered an “empirically supported treatment” for substance use disorders.

The SAMHSA National Helpline for support with substance misuse is available 24/7 and can be reached by calling (800) 662-4357.

This type of therapy may also be used to support individuals with certain types of neurodivergence, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). One study suggests that it may “de-pathologize ADHD-related symptoms and foster insight and self-regulation,” particularly in children and adolescents with ADHD. Finally, PDT could be suggested as well for someone who simply wants to learn more about themselves, process past experiences, adjust current behaviors, or overcome specific emotional challenges.

How psychodynamic therapy works

PDT can be thought of as having three core steps, which the therapist and the client will engage in together over time in an effort to promote significant changes in self-understanding and positive behavioral adjustments.

1. Describing the primary patterns and related challenges

The first step of PDT is usually for the clinician to take stock of the mental health or behavioral challenges the client may be facing. Psychodynamic therapists may do this by working to identify patterns in their client’s feelings, actions, relationships, or experiences and then aiming to gain insight into where these patterns might come from and how they may be affecting their functioning. They may specifically look at behavioral or emotional patterns in the area of the self, relationships, work, and general cognition. Free association is an example of a technique that may be used for this purpose.

2. Reviewing the client’s developmental history

Next, the PDT provider will usually aim to learn as much as possible about the client’s developmental history. This could include information about their family, any traumatic incidents, their childhood and adolescence, past relationships, any unresolved issues or unconscious conflicts in relation to past experiences, and their mental health history in general. All of these factors have the potential to contribute to unconscious behavior patterns and even to the development of some mental health conditions, so becoming aware of them can help the therapist guide the treatment.

3. Linking the patterns to the individual’s history

Linking the identified patterns and challenges to the individual’s history can be done by organizing development ideas. Some examples of organizing ideas include attachment disorders, developing the self, defense and conflict, traumatic incidents, cognitive difficulties, emotional problems, and relationship issues.

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Psychodynamic therapy versus other types of therapy

PDT is just one of the many types of therapy available to treat mental health disorders. Here, we’ll discuss a few other therapies that are widely used outside of psychodynamic therapy.

Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that’s based on psychoanalytic theory, which was founded by Sigmund Freud. Modern psychoanalysis grew out of his original work. This theory has been used for everything from depression to substance use disorders. 

Most people who attend psychotherapy treat it as a long-term or lifelong treatment, often visiting the same therapist for years. The relationship between the client and therapist, also known as the therapeutic alliance, can become so close during the course of psychodynamic therapy that the provider can often tell when something is going on with the client and can offer their help.

Interpersonal therapy

Interpersonal therapy was developed in the 1970s by Myrna Weissman and Gerald Klerman as a unique model based on communication and attachment theories. Engaging in this type of therapy is usually a shorter-term process—about four or five months. Some of the techniques commonly used include role-playing and positive reinforcement. This can be effective for the treatment of many types of mental illnesses, but it’s mostly used for clients with conditions such as:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Postpartum depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Major depression
  • Personality disorders

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is a short-term behavioral therapy designed to help the client see the link between their feelings, thoughts, and beliefs and their behaviors. Through specially focused techniques such as mindfulness, relaxation, journaling, and social exercises, the therapist helps the client develop self-awareness and healthy coping mechanisms.

One research review on the topic suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy may be an effective treatment method for depression, anxiety, and stress. Other research suggests it may also be used to support clients experiencing everything from sleep disturbances to chronic pain to trouble controlling anger.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is a modality designed for individuals who have experienced trauma—particularly if that experience has resulted in effects like panic attacks, depression, or anxiety. 

This treatment involves the therapist guiding the client through a series of bilateral stimulations, which can include rapid side-to-side eye movements, taps, or sounds. During this stimulation, the individual is asked to focus on distressing memories, thoughts, or images. This technique is believed to help the brain reprocess the traumatic memories, reducing their emotional intensity and allowing for more adaptive coping mechanisms.

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Therapy can provide relief from past trauma

Online psychodynamic therapy and its potential benefits

Online psychodynamic therapy is when a trained therapist engages a client using this type of modality via phone, video call, or another virtual method rather than in person. Research suggests that online therapy—including PDT—can be as effective as the in-person format in many cases. For instance, a study published in 2022 suggests that online psychodynamic therapy was able to reduce psychological distress about as effectively as in-person PDT.

Online therapy of various types through platforms like BetterHelp has become increasingly popular in recent years for a variety of reasons, including the following.

Affordability

The cost of online therapy is generally lower than the cost of in-person sessions. For one, online therapists are typically able to charge less than in-person providers because they don’t need a physical office space, so they have lower overhead costs. In addition, online therapy clients don’t have to pay for gas or public transportation to commute to and from a therapist’s office to receive support. Instead, they can generally sign on to sessions from the comfort of home or anywhere else they have a stable internet connection.

Convenience

Another potential advantage of online therapy is that you don’t have to search to find a therapist or clinician in your area. The therapist can be located virtually anywhere as long as they are licensed to provide treatment in your state. That means you may be less likely to get put on a waitlist, and you’ll be able to connect with providers of more types and specialties than may be available in your area. Many people also find it more convenient to work online therapy appointments into their schedules, since there’s no commute time and they can be attended from virtually anywhere.

Increased comfort for those experiencing mental health conditions

A person who is experiencing a mental health condition may sometimes find it difficult to leave the house. For example, depression may manifest as fatigue and difficulty managing everyday tasks, which can be an obstacle to traveling to in-person treatment. Or, consider a person with social anxiety disorder who may experience debilitating symptoms when having to engage with others in social situations. With online therapy, such individuals can log on from their phone, tablet, or computer from their bedroom, living room, or another space where they feel comfortable and that they don’t have to travel to. 

Takeaway

Online psychodynamic therapy is when a trained therapist connects with a client virtually to engage in this specific treatment modality. It may be used to treat conditions such as depression, social anxiety disorder, substance use disorder, and others. If you’re interested in receiving psychodynamic therapy, you can generally choose between in-person or online treatment depending on which would be more convenient or comfortable for you.

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