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Psychodynamic theory says that psychological problems come from a person’s subconscious. But, how do you treat the subconscious? In this lesson, we’ll look at three methods: free association, dream interpretation, and catharsis.

Psychodynamic Treatment

Martha has a problem. She’s in love with a man who doesn’t love her. She feels sad and withdraws from her family and friends. She thinks that if he doesn’t fall in love with her, she might as well die. Martha is suffering from depression, one of many psychological disorders studied in abnormal psychology. There are many ways to approach abnormality.

Some psychologists view disorders like depression as illnesses and treat them with drugs.Some view them as problems with thoughts or behaviors and work to change the way that people act and think. The psychodynamic approach to abnormality says that psychological problems come from our internal urges as well as repressed traumas and emotions.

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Things that happened in your past can influence the way that you feel today. Because many of the urges, emotions and traumas that people experience are repressed, they don’t always know what is causing their psychological issues.As a result, psychodynamic therapy often focuses on tapping into a person’s subconscious. Let’s look closer at three key elements of psychodynamic therapy: free association, dream interpretation and catharsis.

Free Association

Imagine that you’re a psychologist, and Martha comes to visit you. You believe that her depression is stemming from something buried deep within her.

Maybe it’s a memory, or an emotion or even just the way that she views the world. But, how do you get to whatever it is that’s buried deep down? How do you access her subconscious mind, when it’s hidden even from her? It’s not like you can say, ‘Tell me what’s going on in your subconscious,’ because even Martha doesn’t know.Free association is one way that psychodynamic therapists treat patients. It involves asking the client to speak freely anything that comes to mind. It doesn’t have to make sense, and it doesn’t have to be about their current problem. Instead, the therapist is just asking the patient to say whatever pops into their head. For example, perhaps you have Martha free associate.

As she talks, you notice that she mentions things that have to do with her father – smoking, bowties, cowboy hats – several times.When you dig deeper, you discover that her father was never really there for her. He left when she was only eight years old, and before that, he wasn’t very attentive to her.

You think that her current love life issues might stem from her seeking out a man who isn’t interested in her, just as her father didn’t show much interest in her.Subconsciously, she’s reliving the relationship with her father. By figuring out what’s driving Martha’s problems, you can begin to help her work through them.

Free association is one of the key first steps in doing that.

Interpretation

Free association isn’t the only way to tap into someone’s subconscious thoughts, though. In psychodynamic therapy, the therapist often has to interpret, or figure out what is really going on below the surface.

There are many types of therapist interpretation. We’ve already seen one of them. When you noticed the reoccurrence of Martha’s father in her free association, you interpreted this to mean that he had a specific impact on her current relationship.Another common type of interpretation in psychodynamic therapy is dream interpretation, whereby a patient tells her therapist about a dream she had and the therapist figures out what symbolic meaning the dream has.Let’s look at an example. Martha describes a dream to you: The man she’s in love with takes her on a wild trip to the ends of the universe. They are happy and have lots of fun.

What could the dream mean? Obviously, Martha isn’t really going to jump into a spaceship and travel millions of light-years away. So, why did she dream that?Perhaps the dream symbolizes how much Martha wants the world around them to fade away. Maybe her friend can’t love her because he’s too focused on his work or because he’s still hung up on his ex. Or, maybe Martha just feels like the real world is intruding upon her fantasy of being with him.

Whatever the case, this dream might mean that Martha wants to escape reality and be with the man she loves.

Catharsis

Like free association, dream interpretation is about learning what’s going on below the surface. But, what happens next? How does a psychodynamic therapist actually help someone like Martha become a happier, healthier person?To answer that, let’s go back to Martha for a moment. We know that she’s in love with a man who doesn’t love her back. We know that her father was absent from much of her childhood and that she’s seeking out a man who is as inconsiderate of her as her father was. But, just telling her that won’t change much – her feelings and behavior patterns are ingrained very deeply inside her.But, what if you put Martha in a time machine and send her back to her childhood? What if she could return there and feel the pain that she repressed back then when her father rejected her? What if she could confront him and tell him everything that she couldn’t put into words as a child?Catharsis is the experience of bringing traumatic, repressed emotions to the surface.

It’s kind of like a time machine that lets Martha and patients like her re-experience moments in their lives that have informed their choices. By doing that, they can move on.Catharsis is not a quick and easy thing to bring out in a person.

Often, it is done during hypnosis, when the person is able to reimagine the situation that has hurt them. Other times, patients experience catharsis after months or even years of talking to a therapist about the tough times in their lives. Despite how difficult it is, psychodynamic therapists believe that it is a powerful tool towards healing.

Lesson Summary

Psychodynamic therapy treats psychological disorders by digging into a person’s subconscious. Free association asks the patient to say anything and everything that comes to mind. Patterns and thoughts come out of the subconscious during free association.

Another way to get in touch with a person’s deepest emotions is through dream interpretation, where a therapist finds the symbolic meaning of a dream. Finally, catharsis is the experience of feeling emotions that have been repressed. It can lead to healing and a healthier, happier life.

Learning Outcomes

Following your completion of this lesson, you might have the ability to:

  • Assess the psychodynamic approach to the treatment of psychological disorders
  • Comprehend the roles of free association and dream interpretation in helping a psychodynamic therapist identify the root causes of their patients’ problems
  • Gauge the way in which therapists use catharsis as a method of treatment
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