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Page Contents: Brief Psychodynamic Psychotherapy


IN GENERAL, psychodynamic psychotherapy has developed as a less intensive—and less expensive—form of psychological treatment than psychoanalysis, but its premises derive just the same from Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the role of insight in psychological healing. Unlike the cognitive-behavioral treatments, which perceive the individual as a consequence of many stimuli from the environment, psychodynamic psychotherapy perceives the individual as an agent in his or her own behavior and seeks to help the individual understand the unconscious meaning—that is, the dynamics—of troubling symptoms. Thus, insight into the symptoms is valued as a far more helpful and lasting cure than merely “getting rid” of the symptoms.

As a person grows and develops through childhood into adulthood, many environmental stimuli, of course, contribute to shaping that person’s attitudes and behaviors. Although quite a bit of this shaping takes place unconsciously, the outward manifestation of it all is called “personality.”

Now, when the goal of psychological treatment is to change long-standing personality qualities, long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy is called for. Treatment is called “long-term” because it can take more than just a few visits—in fact, it sometimes takes several years—to change patterns of behavior that in themselves took years to develop.

But when a person is functioning well in society and has no deep personality deficits to correct, and yet develops psychiatric symptoms, brief psychodynamic psychotherapy can be used to help the person understand what he or she has been through emotionally that brought about the symptoms.

An Example


A college student was referred by a professor when the student made some angry and sarcastic statements in class that gave the professor cause to be concerned about depression and possible suicidal ideation in the student. So, rather than discipline the student for his disrespectful and disruptive behavior, the professor recommended psychotherapy.

On meeting with the student, I learned that there had been no obvious family dysfunction in his childhood, but there had been a time in pre-adolescence when he was hit by a car while riding a bicycle and very nearly died. In fact, he heard the medical staff say that he would likely not “make it.” I also learned that the student’s remarks in class had been provoked by something the professor had said, something very similar to comments that the student’s father used to make to him. Sometimes the student would feel enraged by his father’s comments, and one night he got so angry that he took off on his bike. And, as it happened, he got hit by a car that ran a stop sign.

Treatment took two sessions. It involved some education about how a near-death experience can cause a trauma that lingers in the unconscious even after the event is survived. It involved some discussion about how the professor’s comments could have triggered painful memories of childhood events. It involved some hypnosis to give the student a new perspective on the unconscious meaning of his past and to help create a new perspective on his future. And it involved some cognitive-behavioral instruction in changing negative thinking.


In the example above, treatment took two sessions. Brief psychotherapy sometimes can take only one session, as in hypnosis for smoking cessation. Or it can take 12 sessions, as in a focused treatment protocol for a traumatic event, such as a rape, or an accident, or an act of terrorism. There is no specified time length, really. In the proper circumstances, however, it can be a short and valuable investment in one’s future.

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Additional Resources
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Choosing a Psychologist
Consumer Rights and Office Policies
Fear of Psychotherapy
Legal Issues
Psychology: Clinical or Counseling or ...?
Psychology and Psychiatry
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Reasons to Consult a Psychologist
Types of Psychological Treatment
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San Francisco
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A Guide to Psychology and its Practice



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