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Psychodynamic Therapy vs CBT: How to Decide?

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Psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are two popular approaches to treating various mental health disorders.

Both therapies aim to help individuals cope with their emotional and behavioral difficulties, albeit through different theoretical frameworks and techniques.

In this blog spot, we will explore the key differences between psychodynamic therapy and CBT, examining their theoretical foundations, therapeutic techniques, and applications in clinical practice.

Understanding Psychodynamic Therapy and CBT

CBT vs Psychodynamic

Psychodynamic therapy and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are two distinct approaches to psychotherapy.

Despite their differences, both aim to alleviate psychological distress by helping individuals understand and overcome their maladaptive behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.

Psychodynamic TherapyCognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Focuses on the belief that current difficulties stem from unresolved unconscious conflicts, often originating from childhood experiences. Is rooted in the premise that maladaptive thoughts and behaviors are learned and can be unlearned through a problem-solving approach.
The therapist guides the patient to explore and understand their feelings and thoughts, enabling them to develop healthier coping mechanisms. The therapist actively collaborates with the patient to identify and challenge negative thought patterns and replace them with healthier alternatives.
Common techniques include free association, dream analysis, and transference interpretation.Skills training, exposure therapy, and cognitive restructuring are frequent techniques employed in this method.
Sessions are often less structured and can last from several months to years. A typical session frequency is once or twice a week.Therapy is more structured, with a set number of sessions ranging from 6 to 20 weeks. It can be conducted individually or in group settings.

Although both therapies have their unique techniques, their efficacy has been widely studied and validated in addressing various mental health issues.

For instance, a multicenter randomized controlled trial has shown that both psychodynamic therapy and CBT can be effective in the treatment of social anxiety disorder.

However, the selection of therapy largely depends on the individual’s needs, preferences, and the therapist’s expertise.

Principles and Approaches

Psychodynamic therapy vs. CBT

Psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) stand as pillars in the therapeutic landscape.

This section delves into the principles and approaches that distinguish psychodynamic therapy from CBT.

Psychodynamic Therapy Principles

Psychodynamic therapy focuses on the influence of a patient’s unconscious mind on their emotions, actions, and relationships.

This approach derives from the psychodynamic perspective, which emphasizes the importance of understanding the roots of emotional and behavioral problems in order to address them.

In both long-term and brief psychodynamic therapy, therapists identify and explore unconscious feelings and relationship patterns.

Some key elements of psychodynamic therapy include:

  • Insight: Encouraging patients to explore their unconscious motives and desires in order to gain self-awareness and self-understanding.
  • Relationships: Examining a patient’s current and past relationships to identify recurring patterns and negative dynamics.
  • Transference: Analyzing the patient’s emotional reactions to the therapist, as they may reflect unresolved emotions from past relationships.
  • Free Association: Asking patients to express their thoughts without inhibition to reveal hidden motives and desires.

CBT Principles

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on modifying patients’ maladaptive thoughts and behaviors with the goal of improving their emotional well-being.

The main principle of CBT is that emotional and behavioral problems result from negative thought patterns and dysfunctional beliefs, which can be changed to produce positive outcomes.

Key components of CBT include:

  • Thoughts: Identifying and challenging irrational or distorted thoughts that contribute to emotional distress and behavioral problems.
  • Behaviors: Encouraging patients to adopt adaptive behaviors that promote emotional well-being and help them achieve their goals.
  • Homework: Assigning tasks for patients to practice between therapy sessions, reinforcing the skills learned during treatment.
  • Directive: Utilizing a more structured, goal-oriented approach in which the therapist helps the patient identify and overcome obstacles.

CBT tends to be more focused and structured than psychodynamic therapy, with an emphasis on behavioral activation and skill-building in response to specific issues.

It has been applied to a variety of psychological disorders and may be used alongside other therapeutic approaches, such as solution-focused therapy.

Both psychodynamic therapy and CBT have proven effective in treating a range of mental health conditions, but the choice between them often depends on individual patient needs and therapeutic goals.

Key Techniques

Psychodynamic therapy vs. CBT

Psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) employ key techniques that reflect their unique philosophical underpinnings.

In this section, we will unravel the key techniques that define psychodynamic therapy in contrast to CBT.

Psychodynamic Techniques

TransferenceTransference refers to the redirection of unconscious feelings from significant relationships in the past to the current therapeutic relationship.

This technique allows therapists to identify unresolved issues from the past, which could help patients gain insight into their current behaviors.
Free AssociationIn free association, patients are encouraged to express any thoughts, emotions, or ideas that come to their mind, even if they seem irrelevant.

This process helps reveal hidden patterns of thought and emotional reactions. It also promotes self-awareness and understanding of the patient’s internal world.
Dream AnalysisIs a technique that involves exploring and interpreting the content of a person’s dreams to gain insights into their unconscious thoughts, emotions, and unresolved conflicts.

In psychodynamic therapy, dreams are seen as a pathway to the unconscious mind, offering symbolic representations of repressed desires, fears, or unresolved issues.

CBT Techniques

Cognitive RestructuringHelps patients reframe negative thoughts and replace them with more positive and adaptive ones.

Cognitive restructuring involves identifying irrational beliefs, challenging them, and learning to develop alternative perspectives.

Exposure Therapy
Especially useful for anxiety disorders, such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In exposure therapy, patients are gradually exposed to the situations or stimuli they fear, helping them overcome their anxiety.

This technique aims to help patients learn that their fears are often irrational and that they can manage their anxiety effectively.
Behavioral TechniquesIncorporates techniques like goal setting, problem-solving, and relaxation strategies to help patients develop healthy coping mechanisms.

These techniques contribute to long-lasting change and improvement in patients’ thoughts and behavior.

Applications in Mental Health

Psychodynamic therapy vs. CBT

Within the expansive field of psychotherapy, psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) emerge as influential modalities, each offering unique applications in the realm of mental health.

Both psychodynamic therapy and CBT have proven to be beneficial in the treatment of various mental health conditions.

Psychodynamic Therapy in Mental Health

Psychodynamic therapy aims to uncover unconscious feelings and emotions that contribute to mental health problems.

It explores how past experiences and unresolved conflicts influence present-day emotions and behaviors.

This therapy has been found to be effective in treating various mental health conditions, including depressionanxiety disorders, and personality disorders.

In psychodynamic therapy, defenses such as repression or denial are explored to help individuals gain insight into their emotions and develop better-coping mechanisms.

This approach is particularly beneficial for those dealing with social anxiety disorder and PTSD, as it helps them understand and face their fears.

CBT in Mental Health

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviors to improve overall mental health.

This approach has demonstrated efficacy in treating a wide range of conditions, including:

  • Anxiety disorders: CBT helps individuals with anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, by teaching them new ways to respond to anxiety-provoking situations.
  • Mood disorders: CBT has been shown to be effective in treating depression, teaching individuals to counter negative thoughts and challenge unhelpful beliefs.
  • Eating disorders: CBT can help people with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, by addressing the cognitive distortions and unhealthy behaviors that contribute to the disorder.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): CBT, specifically exposure and response prevention therapy, is effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors in individuals with OCD.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): CBT, including trauma-focused CBT, can help individuals with PTSD process traumatic memories, reduce distressing symptoms, and improve daily functioning.
  • Substance use disorders: CBT assists individuals in managing triggers for substance use and developing healthier coping strategies.

Psychodynamic Therapy: Pros & Cons

Psychodynamic therapy offers several benefits and drawbacks. Here, we will delve into some of the pros and cons of this approach.

Aims to uncover unconscious patterns, conflicts, and motivations, leading to deep insight into one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviorsIs typically a longer-term treatment approach that requires a significant investment of time, energy, and financial resources.
Considers the whole person, including their emotional, cognitive, relational, and developmental aspects.May be emotionally challenging and may not resonate with clients who prefer a more present-focused or solution-focused approach.
Aims to address underlying issues and promote lasting psychological growth.Empirical research supporting its efficacy has been somewhat limited compared to other therapeutic modalities, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Is highly adaptable to individual client needs and preferences, allowing therapists to tailor interventions to each client’s unique presenting concerns, personality, and therapeutic goals.Some critics of psychodynamic therapy raise concerns about the potential for clients to become overly dependent on their therapist or to develop a strong attachment that hinders their autonomy and self-reliance.

CBT: Pros & Cons

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) offers several advantages and disadvantages, including:

Is one of the most extensively researched and empirically supported therapies for various mental health conditions.It may not always delve deeply into the underlying root causes of psychological distress.
This approach can lead to more immediate symptom relief and practical solutions for managing distress.It may not be the most appropriate treatment for complex issues such as personality disorders or deep-seated trauma.
Equips clients with practical coping strategies and skills to challenge negative thoughts, modify maladaptive behaviors, and regulate emotions.The level of involvement required may be challenging for individuals with low motivation or limited insight.
Has a goal-oriented approach that provides structure and direction, enhancing motivation and accountability.CBT’s focus on cognitive restructuring and rational thinking may overlook the role of emotions and the subjective experience of clients.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main differences between CBT and psychodynamic therapy?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) primarily focuses on addressing patients’ thoughts and behaviors to help them tackle current problems. In contrast, psychodynamic therapy delves into the unconscious mind to uncover patterns and unresolved conflicts from the past.

CBT emphasizes learning specific strategies to cope with immediate life challenges, whereas psychodynamic therapy aims to foster personal insight, growth, and self-awareness.

Which therapy is more effective: CBT or psychodynamic?

The answer to this question depends on individual needs and preferences, as well as the nature of the problem being treated.

Both CBT and psychodynamic therapy have been proven effective for a variety of mental health issues.

The most important factor is finding a well-trained therapist who can develop a strong therapeutic relationship and tailor the treatment to the specific needs of the patient.

Can CBT and psychodynamic therapy be combined?

Yes, it is possible to combine CBT and psychodynamic therapy in an integrative approach. This may involve addressing both present-day thought patterns and behaviors, as well as uncovering past influences on current issues.

The blend of these two therapeutic modalities can provide a comprehensive treatment plan that promotes lasting change and personal growth.

How do the durations of CBT and psychodynamic therapy typically compare?

The duration of therapy depends on the individual’s goals and needs, as well as the complexity of their presenting issues.

Generally, CBT is shorter in duration, often lasting between 6 and 20 sessions. The focus on specific, target problems allows for quicker resolution.

On the other hand, psychodynamic therapy tends to be longer-term, sometimes lasting several years, as it seeks to explore deeper layers of the individual’s psyche and resolve underlying issues.

However, the duration of either therapy can vary greatly, as each person’s journey toward healing is unique.


Hundt, N. E., Mignogna, J., Underhill, C., & Cully, J. A. (2013). The relationship between use of CBT skills and depression treatment outcome: A theoretical and methodological review of the literature. Behavior therapy44(1), 12-26. Link.

Leichsenring, F., Salzer, S., Beutel, M. E., Herpertz, S., Hiller, W., Hoyer, J., … & Leibing, E. (2013). Psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy in social anxiety disorder: a multicenter randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Psychiatry170(7), 759-767. Link.

Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American psychologist65(2), 98. Link.

Additional Resources

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About the author

Eliana Galindo
Eliana is a dedicated psychologist from Colombia who has gained extensive experience and made significant contributions in child development, clinical psychology, and rehabilitation psychology. Her work as a rehabilitation psychologist with disabled children has been transformative and compassionate. In the child development field, she creates nurturing environments through assessments, interventions, and collaboration with families. In clinical psychology, she supports individuals overcoming mental health challenges with empathy and evidence-based approaches. Inspired by her experiences, Eliana is motivated to write about mental health, aiming to raise awareness and advocate for a compassionate and inclusive approach to well-being.

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