The form of therapy Dr. Helfgott uses most is psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy is rooted in psychoanalysis, which was pioneered by Sigmund Freud at the turn of the 20th century as a novel way to treat people who had physical and emotional symptoms that could not be explained or treated with customary medical treatment. Freud was a neurologist and scientist who over three decades discovered and developed his highly refined form of one-on-one communication which seeks to “fix” the problems in his patients that caused their unique problems in living.
Over the course of the many decades that followed, through the contributions of countless clinicians and schools of thought and research in Europe and America, psychoanalysis has evolved into many different forms, styles, treatment modalities, and theoretical paradigms. Certainly, many other forms of treatment for what we now call psychological or psychiatric disorders developed as well, such as cognitive, behavioral, and systems treatments. The term “psychotherapy” is thus a broad term that encompasses any treatment for psychological symptoms that primarily involves talk. It is the “talking cure.” Psychoanalytic psychotherapy, then, is talk therapy practiced from the perspective of psychoanalytic principles, and addresses itself to the psychological components of emotional problems.
In a general sense, psychoanalytic theory maintains that we often have unresolved, unnoticed, undervalued or disregarded thoughts, feelings, and memories that continue to exist in our minds beyond our awareness and influence our decisions and behaviors in the present. In fact, these “hidden” beliefs, assumptions, grudges, hurts or worries can sometimes compel us to repeat patterns of living that may not truly be in our best interests or that even come to disrupt our lives or the lives of those around us. Symptoms, such as depressed mood, panic attacks, anger outbursts, etc… can develop as our mind’s way of dealing with the conflict between what is already in our heads (assumptions and expectations, worries and fears about the world, others, ourselves), and what is actually happening in real life, right now.
Past president of APA’s Division 39 (Psychoanalysis) Nancy McWilliams (2004) cogently writes that the more honest we are about ourselves, the better chances we have for living a satisfying and more useful life. Honesty about our own motives, however, does not come very easily. Thus, in a broad sense, she states, psychoanalytic psychotherapy aims to cultivate an increased capacity to acknowledge what is difficult or painful to see in ourselves. This can only occur in an environment where clients feel safe, valued, respected, understood, and then empowered.
Blagys and Hillsenroth (2000) in their review of the common elements of psychoanalytic (or psychodynamic) psychotherapy practiced today, listed the following:
- Psychoanalytic psychotherapy focuses on affect and expression of emotion
- It explores a patient’s efforts to avoid certain topics during the discussion, or one’s unwitting engagement in activities that delay therapeutic progress
- Therapy identifies patterns in the patient’s actions, thoughts, feelings, experiences, and relationships
- Psychotherapy emphasizes and explores past experiences
- It always maintains a focus on interpersonal relationships
- Like psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic psychotherapy pays close attention to the therapeutic relationship itself
- And, as in psychoanalysis, it explores wishes, dreams and fantasies.
Through therapy, patients learn to understand and identify the problems, events, or situations that may contribute to their particular emotional distress, and understand which aspects of those problems they may be able to solve or improve. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy also helps the patient regain a sense of control and pleasure in life.