What Is Psychoanalytic Therapy?

The Process, Benefits, and Possible Downsides of Psychoanalytic Therapy

A psychoanalytic therapy session
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Psychoanalytic therapy is one of the most well-known treatment modalities, but it is also one of the most misunderstood by mental health consumers. This type of therapy is based upon the theories and work of Sigmund Freud, who founded the school of thought known as psychoanalysis.

What Is Psychoanalytic Therapy?

Psychoanalytic therapy looks at how the unconscious mind influences thoughts and behaviors. Freud described the unconscious as the reservoir of desires, thoughts, and memories that are below the surface of conscious awareness. He believed that it was these unconscious forces that could often lead to psychological distress and disturbances.

Psychoanalysis frequently involves looking at early childhood experiences in order to discover how these events might have shaped the individual and how they contribute to current actions. People undergoing psychoanalytic therapy often meet with their therapist at least once a week and may remain in therapy for a number of weeks, months, or even years. Through this process, the hope is that people will be able to gain insight and awareness of the unconscious forces that contribute to their current mental state.

The History of Psychoanalytic Therapy

Psychoanalytic theory grew out of the work of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who began developing his therapeutic techniques in the late 1800s. In 1885, Freud began to study and work with Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière in Paris. Charcot used hypnosis to treat women suffering from what was then known as hysteria. Symptoms of the illness included partial paralysis, hallucinations and nervousness.

Freud continued to research hypnotism in treatment, but his work and friendship with colleague Josef Breuer led to the development of his most famous therapeutic technique. Breuer described his treatment of a young woman, known in the case history as Anna O., whose symptoms of hysteria were relieved by talking about her traumatic experiences. Freud and Breuer collaborated on a book called Studies on Hysteria and Freud continued to develop his use of this "talk therapy." This approach proposed that simply talking about problems could help relieve psychological distress.

How Does Psychoanalytic Therapy Work?

Psychoanalytic therapists generally spend time listening to patients talk about their lives, which is why this method is often referred to as "the talking cure." The therapy provider will look for patterns or significant events that may play a role in the client's current difficulties. Psychoanalysts believe that childhood events and unconscious feelings, thoughts and motivations play a role in mental illness and maladaptive behaviors.

Psychoanalytic therapy also makes use of other techniques including free association, exploration of the transference, observing defenses and feelings patient's may not be aware of, as well as dream interpretation.

What Are the Benefits of Psychoanalytic Therapy?

As with any approach to mental health treatment, psychoanalytic therapy can have its pluses and minuses. The degree to which these potential benefits and pitfalls influence the choice to use this approach depends on a variety of factors including the individuals preferences and severity of symptoms.

This type of therapy has had critics who claim that psychoanalytic therapy is too time-consuming, expensive, and generally ineffective. Some such as Noam Chomsky and Karl Popper suggested that psychoanalysis lacked a scientific basis. Misconceptions of this type of treatment are often connected to some of the earlier, more classical Freudian applications of psychoanalytic treatment.

In the last few decades, there has been significant research validating this approach’s benefits. The therapist offers an empathetic and nonjudgmental environment where the client can feel safe in revealing feelings or actions that have led to stress and difficulties in his or her life. Often, simply sharing these burdens in the context of a therapeutic relationship can have a beneficial influence. Furthermore, it has been shown that this type of self-examination can lead to continued emotional growth over time.

What Are the Downsides to Psychoanalytic Therapy?

As with all treatment methods, there are also potential downsides that should also be considered. Costs are often cited as the biggest downside of psychoanalytic therapy. Many clients are in therapy for years, so the financial and time costs associated with this treatment modality can be potentially very high.

A Word From Verywell

Psychoanalytic therapy is just one mental health treatment approach that you may want to consider. This approach may provide benefits that might be well-suited to your particular situation, but always talk to your doctor or therapist to determine which psychotherapy method might be the most effective for your individual needs.

Shedler, J.  The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist. 2010;65(2): 98-109.

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