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Psychoanalytic Therapy


Updated September 19, 2011

What Is Psychoanalytic Therapy

Psychoanalytic therapy seeks to help the patient understand unconscious past forces which affect current emotions and behaviors. It is an intensive form of therapy in which the patients meets with his therapist at least weekly and may continue for several weeks or even years.

Historical Basis of Psychoanalytic Therapy

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, formulated the theoretical basis for psychoanalysis in the late 1800s. Freud originally worked as a neurologist rather than a psychiatrist because back then, what we now recognize as anxiety and depression were considered to be part of degenerative brain disorder. Hysterics were either seen in the same way or treated as malingerers. Freud also saw many patients with neurasthenia.

At first, he applied the commonly used treatments of the day -- electrical nerve and muscle stimulation, massage and hydrotherapy. But, he soon came to believe that these treatments were useless. Due to the influence of his mentor Jean-Martin Charcot, who had used hypnosis to temporarily induce or stop hysteria, as well as his own observations of his patients, he realized that these disorders were psychological in origin and could be cured by psychologically.

In the century following Freud's work, psychoanalysis has continued to grow in its understanding of the unconscious forces at work in our relationships and sense of self and more flexible techniques have evolved.

What Is the Conscious/Unconscious?

Freud's discovery of the unconscious is the basis of pscyhoanalysis. The unconscious, according Freud, is a person's reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that lie outside of his conscious awareness. Feelings of pain, anxiety and conflict found within our unconscious can affect our behavior and experience even though we are not consciously aware of why we are doing what we do. The goal of psychoanalysis is to help the patient develop insight into these unconscious processes so that behavior can be changed.

Who Is a Good Candidate for Psychoanalytic Therapy?

Psychoanalytic therapy is not indicated for any particular disorder. The person who is likely to benefit from it may be suffering from longstanding symptoms such as depressed mood, anxiety, and repetitive patterns of behavior that result in a sense of limited choices and enjoyment. The person should possess adequate emotional and psychological strength to endure the anxiety provoked by the removal of their defense mechanisms and the exploration of past painful experiences. (Note that there has been a century of continued understanding of the various unconscious forces that affect our relationships and sense of self, as well as a greater flexibility in the techniques that help patients in psychoanalytic therapy.) The ability to form relationships, self-observe, and contain strong feelings adequately also are strengths that may help in the psychotherapeutic process.


"About Psychoanalysis." American Psychoanalytic Association. 2006. APsaA. Accessed July 27, 2009.

Jacobson, James L. and Alan M. Jacobson. Psychiatric Secrets. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA : Hanley & Belfus, Inc., 2001.

Luborsky, Lester, Marna S. Barrett. "The History and Empirical Status of Key Psychoanalytic Concepts." Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 2 (2006) : 1-19.

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