Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/14/2022
So you’ve just returned from a preliminary session with a mental health professional and, looking over your notes, you’ve begun googling to understand what they’ve told you. Among your questions — how do these different types of therapy compare? Why are the names so complicated? What is psychodynamic therapy?
Psychodynamic therapy may sound intimidating, but it’s actually quite a standard, familiar therapy concept, even if you’ve never been in therapy before.
Look, therapy is scary enough without a whole glossary of new terms to learn, and if you’re worried about moving forward with this form of mental health care because of how little you understand, some internet reading is a great way to get over that hurdle. The good news is that you can drop the anxiety about psychodynamic therapy.
Trust us: there’s very little here that’s scary. Psychodynamic therapy is a great way to address the problems in your life surrounding mental health, and it’s an even better way to learn to know, understand, support and love yourself on a deeper level after dealing with a more central issue.
We don’t need to break out any big terms to explain it, because at its heart, the psychodynamic approach isn’t even that complicated. It’s just a lot of talking. What you talk about matters, so let’s start there.
The variety of therapeutic forms available to the average person today is enough to make the people behind jelly beans blush. But while the overwhelming number of jelly bean flavors on the market might be a great visual image, therapy is probably better explained by the idea of massages (for your safety, please try not to visualize Sigmund Freud in this role).
If therapy styles are massages, psychodynamic might be considered “deep tissue” therapy. It’s about getting as deep as you can on the issue you’re confronting, and in the therapy world, that means exploring the unconscious mind.
Essentially, psychodynamic therapy is about finding links between what’s troubling you and your unconscious.
On the surface, this just means that a therapist will help you see patterns — historical patterns — that inform your behavior in certain situations. This may mean looking at why your current relationship isn’t working through the lens of past relationships. It may mean exploring your trust or vulnerability issues by looking at how you felt about trust and vulnerability as a child.
But the value of this treatment is less about the summary of the concept, and more about the actual process. Let’s talk about it.
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand that the psychodynamic therapy you might experience if you walked into a younger therapist’s office today is likely not what your parents might have experienced with an older therapist when they were your age.
Therapy evolves, and over the years psychodynamic therapy has evolved and converged with other forms of therapy like cognitive-behavioral therapy(CBT) into something more flexible. It’s become more formalized into short-term psychodynamic therapy and long-term psychodynamic therapy, and there are branches — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Here’s how it works: in essence, psychodynamic therapy is just talk therapy with a particular focus on your past.
Self-reflection, self-examination and the discussion of problematic relationship patterns and choices in your past are paramount to psychodynamic therapy techniques, because only in talking through the experiences that formed you in your past can you learn how to reform or improve yourself in your future.
At its heart, psychodynamic treatment is less concerned with treating your symptoms than other forms of therapy or medication. Instead, it focuses on unpacking those root causes to lead you to better self-understanding and self-awareness.
When you know yourself and your tendencies, you have the knowledge to fall less frequently into unhealthy or undesired patterns of behavior.
That can be a benefit to just about all of us, but it can especially be beneficial for people with mood disorders and other mental health conditions.
Psychodynamic therapy can treat a variety of conditions including:
More broadly, however, it can treat anyone who has things about their own ways of thinking or behavior that they’d like to change, often called unconscious thoughts and unconscious mechanisms. These are sometimes called defense mechanisms.
When you learn to respond to stress or threats in unhealthy ways (the person who turns to drugs or alcohol when they’re sad, the person who lashes out when they’re hurt or scared) your defense mechanisms can be a problem.
The whole point of this kind of therapy is to help you connect the dots between the unconscious responses and your conscious mind, so that the next time you go to yell when someone criticizes you or isolate yourself when someone hurts your feelings, you can be aware of that pattern, and respond differently.
It’s a profoundly effective tool for helping people know themselves better, but exactly how effective is it in treating anxiety symptoms, mood disorders and their symptoms? Well, that depends.
Remember what we said earlier about how psychodynamic therapy has sort of converged with other types of therapy in recent years? Well, that makes it difficult to answer this question. Psychodynamic therapy has been shown to be effective and ineffective, more or less effective, depending on the context of the treatment techniques.
Some research shows that psychodynamic therapy is more effective than CBT when battling postnatal depression. Other research shows it’s more effective or not more effective with certain medications.
In most cases, the information we have is anecdotal, and experts argue that the data we do have is from too small of studies over too short of time periods.
But is psychodynamic therapy effective? Yes, it can be. And plenty of studies have indeed shown that it provides tremendous benefits that consistently lead to improvements, even after treatment stops.
What is likely a larger determining factor in your mental health, however, is the big picture of how you pursue treatment, and whether you have expert support from a healthcare professional in starting that journey.
Working through early-life experiences, traumatic experiences, and symptom relief are possible with behavioral therapy.
Choosing the right type of therapy may be important in some cases, but we’d argue that the most important thing you can do for your mental health is choosing the right therapist. Whether you’re looking at psychodynamic therapists or a therapist for another type of psychological treatment, there’s a bigger picture to consider.