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What is psychodynamic therapy? Definition, Examples, and Myths

Key Takeaways:

  • Psychodynamic therapy refers to a form of therapy that relies on the analysis of a patient’s life experiences and how they relate to their current mental health concerns.
  • Because each case is different, psychodynamic therapy is considered less objective than other forms like CBT.
  • Meta-analysis suggests that psychodynamic therapy, though more subjective, is comparably effective than other forms of therapy.

Between Hollywood's tweed grandpas and Instagram's flower-laden gurus, psychodynamic therapy is often mocked as pseudo-scientific snake oil. But is that really the truth?

Psychodynamic therapy is a modality of therapy that focuses on the patient's past experiences and relates them to current problems.

A controversial form of therapy, psychodynamic therapy appears to be at least as effective as many other accepted therapies. As is the case with most therapeutic modalities, the biggest contributor to the efficacy of psychodynamic therapy is trust and rapport with one's therapist.

Being a more subjective and controversial form of therapy, psychodynamic therapy's reputation and usefulness are constantly mischaracterized. Let's unpack psychodynamic therapy and determine what's fact and what's fiction.

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Psychodynamic Therapy Definition

Examples: What Is Psychodynamic Therapy Used For?

Psychodynamic Therapy Myths and Common Misconceptions

Is psychodynamic therapy legit?

Psychodynamic Therapy Definition

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy wherein a licensed therapist analyzes a patient's life and experiences and finds correlative and causal connections between them and the patient's current mental health concerns.

Of course, that definition doesn't really shed light on what patients can actually expect from psychodynamic therapy. That's because a psychodynamic therapy session will look different for each of a therapist's patients, as well as for each therapist in and of themselves.

The best way to get insight into what psychodynamic therapy really is is to look at examples of how it can be used for specific mental health conditions and concerns.

Definition Template (7)-1

Examples: What Is Psychodynamic Therapy Used For?

Psychodynamic therapy can be used to address pretty much any mental health concern. While there are conditions caused by purely physiological processes, many mental health conditions stem from trauma or past experiences.

Psychodynamic therapy can be used to address the root causes of these conditions or concerns and help a patient understand why they think, feel, or act a certain way.

Let's cover some examples. Note that all examples are hypothetical, and should not be taken as legitimate therapeutic advice.

Psychodynamic Therapy for Eating Disorders

Psychodynamic therapy can be used to treat eating disorders in some patients.

People develop eating disorders for thousands of reasons, but a psychodynamic therapist may be able to pinpoint a specific experience or situation from a patient's life that seems to be the root cause.

As an example, let's imagine a hypothetical patient named Michael. Michael is six feet tall but weighs only 115 pounds - severely underweight. His loved ones have expressed concerns that he seems constantly fatigued and never seems to eat more than a few bites of food at mealtime.

In this hypothetical situation, a psychodynamic therapist may suggest that Michael has anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by avoidance of food and body image issues.

The therapist will start by analyzing Michael's past to determine whether there are any traumatic situations that may be contributing to his disorder.

During their fifth session, Michael reveals that when he was a child, his mother always used to comment on his weight and tell him that if he got any heavier (despite Michael being a healthy weight for a child), he would never find love or get married.

Trauma like that can certainly contribute to an eating disorder, so Michael's therapist dives deeper into it. Together, Michael and his therapist discover that Michael has always let his mother's words guide his self-perception, despite his mother being a source of toxic criticism for years.

The therapist might then help Michael build his own self-image - one that is rooted in both emotional and rational truth.

Psychodynamic Therapy for Anxiety

Another hypothetical patient: Sandra, 58, suffers from near constant anxiety. Sandra is financially independent, enjoys her job as an executive, and maintains a good relationship with her family. Outwardly, there is nothing about Sandra's life that would seem to cause anxiousness - but it's there all the same.

During psychodynamic therapy, Sandra reveals that she lost a parent at a young age during a car accident that she was indirectly responsible for.

Her therapist determines that Sandra's anxiety is fueled by residual guilt from the accident, as well as a deeply rooted worry that if she isn't careful, it could happen again.

Sandra and her therapist work together to process the accident in a healthy way, separate Sandra's idea of her child self from her current adult self, and define responsibility and causality in a healthier way.

These are just two examples among thousands of what psychodynamic therapy can do for some patients. It's not for everyone - some patients would be better off with a more concrete form of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) - but it's something worth considering for anyone who can't figure out what's causing their distress.

Psychodynamic Therapy Myths and Common Misconceptions

Here are some of the most common misconceptions surrounding psychodynamic therapy:

Myth: Psychodynamic Therapy Always Blames The Parents

This misconception likely stems from the simple fact that our parents do, in fact, heavily influence our self-perception. Many cases legitimately are related to a patient's parents, so the entire modality is generalized as such.

The fact is that a psychodynamic therapist is not dead-set on blaming a patient's parents for everything. By contrast, a therapist will keep all potential causes of a patient's distress as a possibility until they are eliminated.

Myth: Psychodynamic Therapy Is Fake

The sheer volume of people who have benefited from psychodynamic therapy shows that it's not fake. Psychodynamic therapy is a genuine form of therapy.

The most likely reason for this myth is the fact that, unlike a modality like CBT, the insights and action items determined in psychodynamic therapy are not necessarily repeatable across similar patients.

Whereas CBT and other forms of therapy are considered to be "by-the-book" and peer-reviewed, psychodynamic therapy is more subjective. However, this is actually part of what makes psychodynamic therapy effective: therapists and patients can work together to find insight that is unique to the patient.

Is psychodynamic therapy legit?

While it's more subjective than other forms of therapy, psychodynamic therapy is a legitimate practice and might be a great option for you. The best way to determine if psychodynamic therapy might be right for you is to give it a try!

Find a therapist you trust and work with them to start analyzing how your past experiences may be affecting your current mental health.

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