What is Psychodynamic Therapy?

By Pierre Araman

Psychodynamic theory is a school of depth psychology encompassing the theories and ideas of famous psychologists and psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, Erik Erikson.

Psychodynamic therapy focuses on accessing information hidden in the unconscious and utilizing different techniques to reduce psychic tensions. Principally, psychodynamic therapists concentrate on clients’ past relationships as well as the therapeutic alliance (the relationship between the client and the therapist) so as to uncover unresolved conflicts.

One theory is that childhood traumas can negatively impact present relationships and can lead people to develop unhealthy defense mechanisms, which are unconscious systems developed by a person’s ego to protect themselves against anxiety. Some of the most common defense mechanisms are denial (refusal to admit external reality/events), rationalization (inaccurate reasons to explain behavior), and projection (projecting personal negative traits onto others). By working through the defenses and restructuring the core of the psychopathology, psychodynamic therapists help clients cultivate better self-understanding and develop more accurate views of reality.

Techniques Used in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

Psychodynamic therapists use different tools to access a client’s unconscious such as free association, transference / counter-transference, dreams interpretations, and insights from the client and the therapist.

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  • Free associations are spontaneous and unconscious mental connections made by the brain. They are usually insightful and help therapists determine unconscious views of clients. In other words, the therapist says a word and the client says whatever comes to mind without thinking.
  • Transference and counter-transference refer to negative and/or positive personality traits that are projected onto the therapist by the client and vice versa. For example, a client might say that the therapist reminds them of a parent or a persecutor. Another example would be a therapist referring a client to a colleague because the client reminds them of their child or they are being triggered in some way.
  • Dream analysis speaks for itself. Some themes are recurrent while other require deeper personal interpretation/analysis by the client and/or therapist. Different interpretative tools can be used such as intuition/insights, mythology, metaphor, etc.
  • The therapeutic alliance is one of the most important interventions of psychodynamic psychotherapy. Therapists focus on their relationship with the client to determine the impact it may have on therapy. Some questions considered by a therapist might be: “Would the client be ready to hear this at this time? Does the client feel safe? Is there enough trust to inquire about a certain topic? etc.”
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy also has its own diagnostic manual called the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM). Besides sharing a similar name with the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM), the DSM describes observable symptoms and the PDM outlines subjective experiences.

For more information on this particular form of psychotherapy, here is a preview from a book by Richard F. Summers & Jacques P. Barber (2010) named “Psychodynamic Therapy: A Guide to Evidence-Based Practice, as well as other resources.

Psychodynamic Therapy has been found through research to be effective. A study conducted by Jonathan Shedler (2010) called “The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy” states that clients “maintain therapeutic gains and appear to continue to improve after treatment ends”.

Psychodynamic therapy and Clinical Programs at Sofia University

Psychodynamic therapy is explored and practiced in different classes such as “History and Systems of Psychology”, “Psychotherapy Theory and Interventions”, “Clinical Practicum”, and more. We are currently covering this theory in my “Transpersonal Theory & Literature” class as well as practicing the different interventions through role playing with other students. Whether you are interested in the PsyD, PhD, or Master’s program; you will have access to in-depth experiences and knowledge of the theory at Sofia University.

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