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Similarities and differences between cbt and psychodynamic therapy

When you begin your search for a therapist, it’s likely you’ll come across  the terms CBT and psychodynamic therapy. What are these therapy modalities and how do you know which one is best for you?

Psychodynamic therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are two major schools of thought in the therapy field. Both are talk-based therapies that are highly effective for a number of issues and concerns. Which one is right for you depends on many factors. We’ve collected the need-to-know information about both so you can make an educated decision as you search for the perfect therapist for you.

Psychodynamic therapy

Psychodynamic therapy looks to your past to understand your present

Psychodynamic therapy is insight-oriented. In other words, this approach focuses on helping you gain insight into how your early life experiences affect your present day. This can include taking a long look at your relationship with your parents, early attachment style, or how you interacted with your siblings growing up.

You will dive into deep-rooted aspects of yourself, such as ongoing relationship patterns, various interpersonal struggles, different facets of your personality, as well as your stages of emotional development.

The goal of psychodynamic therapy is to heighten self-awareness and self-empowerment

In psychodynamic treatment, you’re working towards the development of a greater understanding of yourself, both now and in your past.

The ultimate aim is to harness this newfound internal insight to:

  • Reshape your understanding of yourself
  • Heal emotional wounds
  • Shift unhealthy relationship patterns and behaviors

Psychodynamic therapy is often relatively long-term, lasting several months or years

There is no set end date to psychodynamic therapy. It’s often a long-term treatment, lasting from several months to many years. There is a form of psychodynamic therapy called brief psychodynamic therapy, which is short term. Brief psychodynamic therapy is set up to help you discover what is blocking you from progressing in a certain area. Once the reason for being blocked is uncovered, therapy usually ends. However, with traditional psychodynamic therapy, the overall duration depends on your specific needs and situation.

Download Your Free CBT vs. Psychodynamic Therapy: What’s the Difference? Guide

Situations and mental health conditions psychodynamic therapy can help with

Psychodynamic therapy is often used in the treatment of mental health conditions, including:

It can also be helpful in helping clients navigate distressing situations like:

Note that you don’t need to have a specific mental health diagnosis or condition to benefit from psychodynamic therapy. In fact, this approach is a common choice for individuals who feel that they might benefit from gaining insight into themselves and their pasts, but aren’t targeting a pressing issue or condition.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT focuses on finding practical, skills-based solutions to present-day problems

Cognitive behavioral therapy, often shortened to CBT, focuses on recognizing negative thought patterns and changing thoughts and behaviors and feelings through concrete skills. The focus is on finding practical solutions to your present-day challenges instead of looking for the root cause of the problem.

CBT often entails homework assignments

Sessions often involve homework assignments, also called “action plans,” for you to implement outside of sessions.

Typical homework assignments include:

  • Journaling, especially about any negative thoughts that arise throughout the day so you can begin looking at these thoughts and challenging them
  • Writing self statements to counteract the negative thoughts you have throughout the day
  • Practicing positive reinforcement when you recognize and change a particular thought you can reward yourself
  • Mastering meditation practices to calm and center yourself
  • Learning visualization techniques to help you to change the negative script in your head into a successful and pleasant script
  • Doing breathing exercises to help deal with anxiety and calm your mind

CBT is often a short-term treatment style, lasting 2-3 months

This type of therapy is typically more short-term, usually eight to 12 weekly sessions, over the course of two or three months.

Situations and mental health conditions CBT can help with

CBT is often used in the treatment of the following conditions:

Your therapist may incorporate both approaches into treatment

Some therapists practice pure versions of each approach – they may offer strictly CBT sessions, for example, or only draw from elements of psychodynamic therapy.

But others will incorporate both approaches. They might, say, use CBT tactics to provide symptom relief in the beginning before diving deeper into a psychodynamic perspective. The exact calibration often depends on the therapist’s overall approach, as well as your symptoms.

You might prefer another type of therapy altogether

In addition to CBT and psychodynamic therapy, there are tons of other types of therapy approaches, from brainspotting to solution-focused therapy. It’s likely that some of these therapy approaches appeal to you more than others, and that some are more relevant to your reasons for seeking therapy. You can use Zencare’s therapist directory filter to search for any specific Approach, if you find yourself leaning towards one or the other.

Most therapists, however, use some combination of the approaches and skills they’ve learned through various training sessions. So when you’re looking for a great therapist, ask potential providers how they approach treatment. Doing so will help you get a feel for what therapy with them might look like. This will then, in turn, help you decide whether their approach would work for you!

The stigma against therapy has decreased significantly within the last generation. More people are opening up about their problems and want to seek help, and mental healthcare has become more accessible than ever before with the convenience of teletherapy and virtual appointments.

It’s fantastic that people want to be better versions of themselves, but what if you encounter new problems by trying to fix old ones? What if therapy isn’t providing you with the tools you need to improve?

Well, don’t give up on yourself just yet! Therapy is a very versatile profession that can come in a number of different forms, which can offer unique solutions to different problematic areas of your life. 

Two popular forms of talk therapy, psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral, are both useful in managing issues pertaining to your mental health. Let’s get to know what makes them effective tools, how they offer their own specialized benefits, and how they can both be crucial to improving your mental health.

Psychodynamic Therapy

How the Past Influences the Present

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of psychoanalysis that attempts to gain understanding of your current situation and behaviors by connecting them to circumstances that happened in the past. That may seem like a mouthful, but the takeaway is that psychodynamic therapy is based upon having productive discussions with your therapist where underlying problems are identified and appropriately addressed. 

The relationship between therapist and client is a crucial part of how psychodynamic therapy functions. Constructed as a long term approach, psychodynamic therapy does not follow a clearly defined structure and is rather loose in how it is applied to each individual. 

There is plenty to appreciate about how psychodynamic therapy can help manage your problems. No agenda is established by your therapist during these sessions, giving you the freedom to talk about anything that’s on your mind. Your therapist will spend time getting to know your personality and your personal history, allowing them to address current problems that may stem from either of those topics. 

Two woman are seated and talking to each otherPsychodynamic therapy involves insightful conversations with your therapist where problematic behaviors are identified and explored through analyzing the past. 

What Are the Benefits of Psychodynamic Therapy?

  • You are in control of the conversation and direct what is being talked about
  • Helps you shift away from unhealthy relationship patterns 
  • No homework is assigned to you to complete outside of the sessions
  • Your therapist gains a better understanding of your behaviors
  • Looking at situations with your therapist can help change your perspective and give you useful knowledge  

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavior Therapy is based on finding practical solutions to problems that are currently causing distress in your life. CBT focuses on identifying negative thought patterns in your life and altering those problematic behaviors and feelings through direct action. 

A common trait of CBT is homework assignments, which will help you prepare for the next session and allow you to reflect on your thoughts. Journaling can be helpful if you wish to keep track of negative thought patterns and behaviors so that you can attempt to counteract them. Meditation and positive reinforcement practices are also assigned as extracurricular work in CBT.   

CBT treatment is often short, lasting only a couple months before coming to an end. Still, it is an effective method of therapy useful in treating some mental health conditions that are difficult to manage. 

What Can CBT Help Address? 

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Alcohol and drug abuse problems
  • Eating disorders
  • Severe mental illness

A person writes in a notebookNoticing negative behaviors or thoughts and writing them down in a journal is an effective way of confronting your problems. 

How Psychodynamic Therapy and CBT Relate

Even though they have different approaches to managing mental health, psychodynamic therapy and CBT are very alike in their functions as individualized therapies. 


  • They are both talked based therapies
  • Assumes that what goes on inside of your head influences your behavior
  • Change occurs by bringing the unconscious into conscious awareness
  • Both have goals of increasing personal and interpersonal function

Why Different Methods of Therapy Should Not Be in Competition

The world of psychology can sometimes appear to be a hectic patchwork of different methods that are constantly being strung against each other in the pursuit of effective treatment. You might wonder about the legitimacy of some practices when you hear the same rhetoric several times, claiming that one method cannot sufficiently manage mental health in comparison to other treatments. Be careful before you preemptively rush to any conclusions, though. 

Psychology is a vast field and there is still much to be understood regarding certain mental health conditions, therefore it is impossible to say with absolute authority that one specific kind of therapy is better than another. A much more effective approach to this dilemma is to treat the various types of therapies available as offering alternative ways to mitigate and manage current situations or behaviors that, when employed in a noncompetitive fashion, can work together to produce a more productive result.

Some practices are better suited for different folks, but that does not diminish the importance of psychological methods designed to promote wellness. 

A drawing of three stick people standing and one doing a handstand.Though people can experience similar problems, each individual is unique and how they react to certain forms of therapy depends on their previous history.

What’s Right For Me?

Choosing a form of therapy that is catered towards your individual needs is perhaps the most important part of seeking mental health treatment. Therapy benefits those who experience it in ways that appropriately respond to the disorder, mental illness, or trauma that is being addressed. 

Even if you don’t know which approach to therapy will be most useful for you, that doesn’t stand in your way of getting treatment. There are many therapists who have training in both types and will be able to provide you the help that you need.