The origin of psychodynamic theory dates back to Sigmund Freud and his followers. The founder of psychoanalysis argued that human behavior and conditions are influenced by complex internal and external dynamics of which people are mostly unaware. Therefore, psychodynamics is often described as an approach that studies the interplay of conscious and unconscious forces and incentives responsible for influencing a person’s behavior (Berzoff, Flanagan, & Hertz, 2016). Thus, the psychodynamic perspective deals with the processes in the human mind and functioning and connects them with the person’s experience in their childhood, social environment, and community.
Psychodynamic theory is closely associated with psychoanalysis so many authors use these concepts interchangeably. A number of prominent Freudians such as Carl Jung, Anna Freud, Alfred W. Adler, and Erik Erikson contributed to the development of psychodynamics. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the head of the International Psychoanalytic Association and founder of analytical psychology, was one of Freud’s most notable followers. Jung’s analytical psychology was based on the theory of archetypes (Berzoff et al., 2016). His major concept was that of the collective unconscious, which consisted of problems and archetypes shared by human societies.
In more than a century of its evolution, the psychological perspective has incorporated the drive or instinct theory, ego psychology and self-psychology, stage theory, and further developments of the Freudian concepts. By the 1950s, the psychodynamic theory was already firmly established in research institutions and clinical practice. However, after several decades, interest in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic theory began to decline gradually.
Critics of this approach have often pointed out that therapy principles are deterministic and not entirely scientific. Emphasis on mental processes and the unconscious are also essential characteristics of psychodynamics. Although according to this psychological perspective, human behavior and emotions are the results of both nature and nurture, this approach tends to overestimate the role of childhood experience (Hutchison, 2017). Among the limitations of the psychodynamic perspective, is also a little focus on a person’s own decisions (free will). Additionally, despite working with specific case studies, some of the empirical findings of psychodynamics still require more evidence.
First introduced as a treatment method in Freud’s and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria (1895), hypnosis was one of the instruments used in classical psychoanalysis. According to Freud, hypnosis could help the psychoanalyst go beyond the patient’s consciousness and comprehend their repressed fears and desires (Wall, 2018). Subsequently, Freud himself limited the use of hypnosis as a treatment method, due to the disapproval of his patients. The 1950s witnessed an increased interest in the use of hypnosis in therapeutic practice in the United States. At the moment, hypnotherapy is questionable and limited, while the medical community doubts its efficacy. Additionally, this practice has never been established and institutionalized widely.
Currently, the field of psychodynamics is diverse and covers a variety of theories. For example, Berzoff et al. (2016) propose integrating biological and social aspects in research and developing a biopsychosocial approach to treating clinical patients. Dynamically informed therapeutic actions could differ between psychotherapy and psychiatry. In a modern clinical setting, a psychodynamic psychiatrist explores physiological and sociocultural aspects of a patient’s life. Moreover, these treatments are closely related to and influenced by neurosciences. Dynamic psychiatrists strive to study biological dysfunction or disease through psychoanalytic methods.
The psychodynamic therapeutic approach is based on a conversation with patients and includes a diversity of practices. Therapists comprehensively examine patients’ behavior, emotions, childhood experiences, and trauma whose treatment can take from a few sessions to many weeks. For example, in treating panic attacks and other anxiety disorders, psychodynamic practitioners explore the premises and foundations of anxiety and work with the personality’s internal conflicts. Supportive-expressive therapy used in this practice involves developing introspection and self-understanding through expressive intervention and supportive practices (Pitman & Knauss, 2020). An integral treatment element is the so-called internalization of the therapeutic function, which provides the patient with tools for subsequent self-analysis.
In addition to talk therapy, social workers’ critical tools include working with associations and images. In some cases, transference to the clinician is practiced while working through difficult relationships. Moreover, sometimes, the Freudian dream analysis technique is used with cognitive-behavioral therapy or Gestalt therapy. Thus, today, a psychodynamic theory is often applied in social work for in-depth analysis of the behavioral practices, relationships, and conflicts of a client or couple. Often, the psychodynamic perspective in psychology sessions assists clients in self-discovery and understanding.
In summary, it is worth noting that modern psychology benefits from a variety of approaches and theories. One of the earliest perspectives in psychotherapy is psychodynamics. The strengths of this approach include the focus on conversational strategy and attention to the patient’s experience and sociocultural context. Although a number of scholars continue criticizing it for psychic determinism and insufficient evidence of some assumptions and conclusions, the psychodynamic perspective provides a tool for further introspection. Additionally, it helps to avoid repeating patterns of behavior and, for example, abusive relationships.
Berzoff, J., Flanagan, L. M. & Hertz, P. (2016). Why psychodynamic theories? Why a biopsychosocial context? In Inside out and outside in: psychodynamic clinical theory and psychopathology in contemporary multicultural contexts (pp. 1-17) (4th ed.). Rowman & Littlefield.
Hutchison, E. D. (2017). Essentials of human behavior: Integrating person, environment, and the life course (2nd ed.). SAGE Publications.
Pitman, S. R. & Knauss, D. P. C. (2020). Contemporary psychodynamic approaches to treating anxiety: Theory, research, and practice. In Y. K. Kim (Ed.), Anxiety disorders. Advances in experimental medicine and biology (pp. 451-464). Springer, Singapore. Web.
Wall, T. W. (2018). Hypnosis: A psychodynamic perspective. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 60(3), 218-238. Web.