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Is Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Evidence-Based?
Evidence-Based Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

Is Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Evidence-Based?

The public—and many clinicians—often assume that it is not. In fact, many university courses teach that only cognitive-behavioral approaches have current empirical support. This assumption is false and does a disservice to the field and to the public alike. A growing number of studies demonstrate that psychodynamic psychotherapy is evidence-based, and support the value of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic approaches, especially for complex cases and long-term change. 

Some Psychological Approaches Are Easier to Research Than Others

Clinical psychology is a multifaceted discipline, with a history that spans over 100 years. Since its origins, approaches and perspectives have come and gone in popularity. Classical psychoanalysis, object relations theory, and ego psychology; humanistic client-centered, gestalt, and existential therapies; behavior therapies; cognitive, cognitive-behavioral, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapies; interpersonal therapy; eye movement desensitization therapy; dialectical behavior therapy; integrative or holistic therapy—and the list continues to grow. Some approaches have been studied more than others. Many show promising results in some studies, only to be found to be limited in others. Some win favor because they are simple to research, and so garner publicity and research grants. Others draw attention because they are easy to teach and to master, or are short in duration and so inexpensive. Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic approaches are complex; they are not easily taught and they pose challenges to research. But, despite this, they continue to have many followers and are gaining impressive scientific support.

A Growing Body of Research Supports the Value of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, Despite Its Complexity

Is psychodynamic psychotherapy evidence-based? Absolutely! Numerous current scientific studies support the value of psychodynamic and psychoanalytic approaches. In fact, meta-analyses—studies that gather evidence across multiple studies—demonstrate the effectiveness of psychodynamic and psychoanalytic work and indicate that, in some cases, psychodynamic approaches may be more effective in the long-run than other therapeutic models (e.g., Abbass et al., 2014; Baardseth et al., 2013; Bastos, Guimaraes, & Trentini, 2015; Buchheim et al., 2012; Busch, 2015; Grande et al., 2009; Johansson et al., 2010; Kallestad, Valen, McCullough, Svartberg, Høglend, & Stiles, 2010; Klug, Zimmermann, & Huber, 2016; Leichsenring, & Rabung, 2011; Midgley & Kennedy, 2011; Parker & Turner, 2014; Rizeanu, 2016; Shedler, 2010; Shepherd & Beail, 2017; Soares et al., 2018; Waldron, Gazzillo, Genova, & Lingiardi, 2013; Waldron, Gazzillo, & Stukenberg, 2015).

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Is Often Misperceived

As noted by Shedler (2010) in an article published by the American Psychologist—a well-regarded publication of the American Psychological Association, “the perception that psychodynamic approaches lack empirical support does not accord with available scientific evidence and may reflect selective dissemination of research findings” (p. 98). This faulty perception has led some educational programs to downplay its significance or even dismiss it as an “outdated” approach. It is in the public interest that the field conduct scientific inquiry into the potential benefits and mechanisms of all therapies that clinicians have found to be valuable. Researchers cannot adequately investigate theories that they do not fully understand—research draws from a theoretical base (Britzman, 2012), which must be clearly understood before meaningful studies can be conducted regarding its mechanisms (e.g., Gazzillo et al., 2017; Laska, Gurman, & Wampold, 2014; Waldron et al., 2015). It is, therefore, crucial for science as well that the field continue to be educated about the premises of these valuable therapeutic approaches. Unlike some behavioral theories, many of the constructs of psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theory can only be assessed indirectly. Fortunately, many researchers are accepting the creative challenge.

It Is Important to Continue Researching All Psychotherapy Approaches

It is important for psychologists, psychoanalysts, and counselors to stay current, with scientifically grounded evidence, regarding issues relevant to enhancing their service to the public and the profession. Research, and informed discussion and practice, strengthen the profession. Is psychodynamic psychotherapy evidence-based? Yes, psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapies are indeed empirically validated as valuable approaches for a wide range of disorders and clients. And, to quote Eric Kandel, neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate, “Psychoanalysis still represents the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind” (1999, p. 505).

References for Evidence-Based Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

Abbass, A. A., Kisely, S. R., Town, J. M., Leichsenring, F., Driessen, E., De Maat, S., Gerber, A., Dekker, J., Rabung, S., Rusalovska, S., & Crowe, E. (2014). Short-term psychodynamic psychotherapies for common mental disorders (review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 7, 1-108.  doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004687.pub4

Baardseth, T. P., Goldberg, S. B., Pace, B. T., Wislocki, A. P., Frost, N. D., Siddiqui, J. R., Lindemann, A. M., Kivlighan III, D. M., Laska, K. M., Del Re, A. C., Minami, T., & Wampold, B. E. (2013). Cognitive-behavioral therapy versus other therapies: Redux. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 395-405. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2013.01.004

Bastos, A. G., Guimaraes, L. S. P., & Trentini, C. M. (2015). The efficacy of long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy, fluoxetine and their combination in the outpatient treatment of depression. Psychotherapy Research, 25(5), 612-624. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2014.935519

Britzman, D. P. (2012). What is the use of theory? A psychoanalytic discussion. Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 19(1), 43-56. https://doi.org/10.1080/1358684X.2012.649143

Buchheim, A., Viviani, R., Kessler, H., Kächele, H., Cierpka, M., et al. (2012). Changes in prefrontal-limbic function in major depression after 15 months of long-term psychotherapy. PLoS ONE, 7(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0033745

Busch, F. N. (2015). Discussion: Psychoanalytic research: Progress and questions. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 35, 196-203. https://doi.org/10.1080/07351690.2015.987607

Gazzillo, F., Waldron S., Gorman, B. S., Stukenberg, K. W., Genova, F., Ristucci, C., Faccini, F., & Mazza, C. (2017). The components of psychoanalysis: Factor analyses of process measures of 27 fully recorded psychoanalyses. Psychoanalytic Psychology, advance online publication, 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pap0000155

Grande, T., Dilg, R., Jakobsen, T., Keller, W., Krawietz, B., Langer, M., Oberbracht, C., Stehle, S., Stennes, M., & Rudolf, G. (2009). Structural change as a predictor of long-term follow-up outcome. Psychotherapy Research, 19(3), 344-357. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503300902914147

Johansson, P., Høglend, P., Ulberg, R., Amlo, S., Marble, A., Bøgwald, K.-P., Sørbye, Ø., Sjaastad, M. C., & Heyerdahl, O. (2010). The mediating role of insight for long-term improvements in psychodynamic therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(3), 438-448. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0019245

Kallestad, H., Valen, J., McCullough, L., Svartberg, M., Høglend, P., & Stiles, T. C. (2010). The relationship between insight gained during therapy and long-term outcome in short-term dynamic psychotherapy and cognitive therapy for cluster C personality disorders. Psychotherapy Research, 20(5), 526-534. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2010.492807

Kandel, E. (1999). Biology and the future of psychoanalysis: New intellectural framework for psychiatry revisited. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 505-524. https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/ajp.156.4.505

Klug, G., Zimmermann, J., & Huber, D. (2016). Outcome trajectories and mediation in psychotherapeutic treatments of major depression. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 64(2), 307-343. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003065116644742

Laska, K. M., Gurman, A. S., & Wampold, B. E. (2014). Expanding the lens of evidence-based practice in psychotherapy: A common factors perspective. Psychotherapy, 51(4), 467-481. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0034332

Leichsenring, F., & Rabung, S. (2011). Long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy in complex mental disorders: Update of a meta-analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 199, 15–22. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.110.082776

Midgley, N., & Kennedy, E. (2011). Psychodynamic psychotherapy for children and adolescents: A critical review of the evidence base. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 37(3), 232-260. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0075417X.2011.614738

Parker, B., & Turner, W. (2014). Psychoanalytic/psychodynamic psychotherapy for sexually abused children and adolescents: A systematic review. Research on Social Work Practice, 24(4), 389-399. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049731514525477

Rizeanu, S. (2016). Psychotherapy of borderline personality disorder. Romanian Journal of Experimental Applied Psychology, 7(3), 76-81. doi: 10.15303/rjeap.2016.v7i3.a7

Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 65(2), 98-109. doi: 10.1037/a0018378,

Shepherd, C., & Beail, N. (2017). A systematic review of the effectiveness of psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapy with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities: Progress and challenges. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 31(1), 94-117. https://doi.org/10.1080/02668734.2017.1286610

Soares, M. C., Mondin, T. C., Silva, G. D. G. D., Barbosa, L. P., Molina, M. L., Jansen, K., Souza, L. D. M., & Silva, R. A. D. (2018). Comparison of clinical significance of cognitive-behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy for major depressive disorder: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 206(9), 686-693.

Waldron, S., Gazzillo, F., Genova, F., & Lingiardi, V. (2013). Relational and classical elements in psychoanalyses: An empirical study with case illustrations. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 30(4), 567-600.Waldron, S., Gazzillo, F., & Stukenberg, K. (2015). Do the processes of psychoanalytic work lead to benefit? Studies by the APS Research Group and the Psychoanalytic Research Consortium. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 35, 169-184. https://doi.org/10.1080/07351690.2015.987602

Jacques Lacan: A Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Psychoanalyst

Jacques Lacan: A Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Psychoanalyst 

Jacques LacanAs a practicing psychoanalyst for the past 30-plus years, I have sought to integrate the wisdom from many mentors. My supervisors and training analyst guided me through the collected works of Freud, Klein, Winnicott, and Spotnitz. While writing my doctoral dissertation on clinical psycholinguistics, I learned of the work of Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst.

The more I read of Lacan’s ideas, the more fascinated I became with his unique take on the role of language for shaping the mind and the practice of psychoanalysis. Equally intriguing were the stories about Lacan, the man, who fought to promote a view of psychoanalysis that dared to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the psychoanalytic establishment.

Psychoanalysis has been fraught with in-fighting, exclusiveness, and dogmatism since its inception, which bears an embarrassing irony toward unresolved Oedipal feuds. Fortunately, my training had encouraged an appreciation for psychoanalysis as one of the humanities. Art, literature, religion, culture, philosophy, and music are all expressions of the human experience that are essential for venturing into a serious consideration of the psyche. Lacan’s masterpiece, simply titled, Écrits, included discussions of all of these topics and more.

Certainly his writing is dense and difficult; yet, I found it compelling as a source of provocative ideas and observations. A learned colleague once warned me that life is too short to read Lacan. In fact, most of my colleagues have shared similar negative biases, although they had never read his work themselves and relied, instead, on second- and third-hand critiques. Like most contemporary textbooks on psychology that summarily dismiss Freud out of ignorance or misinformation, these colleagues were content to preserve their allegiance to a particular school of thought.

Some Lacanian theorists have since become a somewhat esoteric group in the US, often adopting an obscure and cryptic style, perhaps in homage to the master. Whereas Lacan’s concepts are complex, both philosophically and logically, my reading of his work suggests that he sought to promote creative and relevant applications by clinicians, not to develop sycophants.

As an addition to Freud’s structural model of the mind consisting of the Id, Ego, and Superego, Lacan proposed that our subjective experience is contextualized with regard to how phenomena become registered in the mind. He identified three constituent contexts for the mind: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. Broadly described, the Real is fundamentally a derivative of our senses, the Imaginary is derived from perceptual and fantasied mental processes, and the Symbolic is derived from culture and through language. These registers function as interlocking systems of knowing that collectively form one’s sense of awareness.

With the premise of these mental registers, I will attempt to describe Lacan himself. The Real Lacan was a man trained as a psychiatrist in the first half of the twentieth century. He appeared as an intellectual and scholar who studied philosophy, art, science, medicine, and politics, as well as psychoanalysis. His personality is described as intense, passionate, and charismatic. Reportedly, he successfully obtained the release of his wife from Nazi custody by charging into Gestapo offices and demanding her immediate release.

The Imaginary Lacan is the one we know as we read his words. The thoughts and questions that emerge as the reader forms associations to his ideas and through his playful use of words that tease us to push our thinking a bit further.

The Symbolic Lacan is a provocateur of psychological theory. The word “Lacanian” has come to represent courageous and radical commitment to understanding the depth and vastness of the human condition, with full acceptance of the impossibility and ineffability of that task.

Whereas Lacan is mostly known in the US in terms of applications to literary criticism and socio-political theory, he is considered one of the most influential psychoanalytic thinkers in Europe and South America. Regardless of the difficulty that some of his ideas pose, the questions he raises about self-authenticity and one’s capacity to retain sanity in a civilized society has never been more timely.

To learn more about Lacan, see Jacques Lacan: Introductory Overview.

The Value of “Having Your Head Examined”

Psychotherapy

PsychotherapyThe profession of psychotherapy has been around for over 100 years, with less formal versions of personal consultation going back to biblical times.  So why is it that the voluntary seeking of psychotherapy can be such a polarizing issue?   

Skeptics of psychotherapy cast doubts on the effectiveness of “talk” to change anything in a substantive manner.  Human beings are talkative creatures, so what is so special about talking to a psychotherapist rather than to a hairdresser, bar tender, cab driver, or next-door neighbor?  “If all therapists do is talk, then I can get that anywhere, and for a lot less than $150 per hour!”  

But talking is only one part of the picture.  An even more significant aspect of psychotherapy is the therapist’s capacity to hear what is being said—not just with words, but also in a larger implicit sense—hearing the meaning of a person’s truth.

Some advocates of psychotherapy might argue that it has changed their lives, saved their marriages, or even freed them from a life of abuse.  

What does seem clear to me though is that many people are afraid of psychotherapy.  Considering how therapists get portrayed in movies or the embarrassing presentation of media psychologists, there seems to be good reason to fear them.  I am often asked if psychotherapists are motivated by their own deep-seated issues and if they are as “crazy” as the people that they portend to treat?  My answer is simply . . . of course!  Being human is, in itself, a crazy proposition.  We live in an artificial world of our own invention by rules we make up, and we kill ourselves needlessly in wars, with drugs, on highways, in airplanes, and sometimes for pleasure.  There is good reason to think humans are crazy!

Yes, we do good things too, and we invented science and ethics and laws.  But while it is easy to be seduced into exalting the remarkable advances produced by the human race, our fellow (nonhuman) creatures may have a profoundly different opinion of us—if we could only hear them speak!  Humans have one foot in a virtual world of seemingly limitless creativity that seems wonderful, if not artificial, and the other in a biological reality, with specific needs and limitations.  People need to be nurtured, for instance, by another person who will validate their existence and uniqueness.  (Think about how painful it can feel to be ignored, or have your feelings and thoughts dismissed and devalued).  

Perhaps the most valuable contribution made by the profession of psychotherapy has been to create an industry designed to help persons retain their connection to their humanity.  In spite of all we have invented, we remain fragile living organisms, clinging to each other for survival—a reminder that there is no substitute for real human contact.  

With dozens of forms of psychotherapy to choose from, what they all have in common is that they provide a private, protected space, where the challenge of being alive can be acknowledged and supported by another who respects and listens to the struggle for sanity.

A good resource for clinicians for more information on the complexities of the therapeutic relationship is the course Psychodynamics of the Therapeutic Relationship.

Why Can’t We Simply Choose Happiness?

 

Happiness

HappinessAs a psychologist and psychotherapist, I’ve spent the last 30 years listening to people struggle with anxieties, depression, and loneliness, in search of ways to alleviate unhappiness.  And as a professor, I’ve spent as many years researching ways to build resilience—hoping to find ways to prevent people from “succumbing” to unhappiness.  The more I explore these issues, however, the more I’m convinced that Freud was on the right track.  We are extraordinarily complex creatures who, by nature, are probably not headed toward tranquility or happiness.  If we wish to build a happy life, we’ll have a darned hard fight on our hands.

Brain Research On Neurophysiology of Experiences

I keep returning to a delightful article by Hiss (2014) on the human brain published in the Reader’s Digest a couple of years ago.  Hiss reviews fascinating research on the neurophysiology of such experiences as love, procrastination, reactions to criticism, and road rage, and the basis for many of our emotional struggles. 

We like to think that our intellectual abilities accorded to us by the magnificent cortex provide us with the tools needed to control unpleasant emotions and primitive urges.  But why, then, do we feel our blood pressure rise and rage take over when someone “waves” to us with a single finger from their car?  What just happened?

As Hiss notes, the cortex is a relative newcomer to the brain party.  It’s built on a more primitive mammalian, emotional part of the brain, which is built on an even more primitive reptilian part.  How peaceful—or cooperative—a party should we expect? 

Our Expectations On Handling Life And Emotions

She draws an analogy to a speed boat that’s been built on a row boat base.  We expect to zip through life’s rough waters with ease—something our rickety base may not be able to manage.  It’s amazing that our brains aren’t out of service more often!

So when I hear patients question what’s wrong with them that they can’t seem to manage their emotions or just “choose” to be happy, I remind them that they’re not a Golden Retriever.  And some days, their lizard is active.

References

Hiss, K. (Sept. 2014). The beautiful life of your brain. Reader’s Digest.

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