CBT vs. Psychodynamic Therapy: What's the Difference?

The big schools of thought in therapy can be divided into psychodynamic therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Both are talk-based therapies that are highly effective for a number of issues and concerns.

You may prefer, or stand to benefit, from one approach over the other, so here's a breakdown of what each entails:

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 (such as your relationship with your parents) affect your present day.

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 developing greater understanding of yourself, both now and in your past.

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

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.

One form of psychodynamic therapy called brief psychodynamic therapy is shorter-term; it 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.

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 (may be called "action plans") for you to implement outside of sessions.

Typical homework assignments include:  

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.

Most therapists, however, use some combination of the approaches and skills they’ve learned through various trainings.

So when you're looking for a great therapist, ask potential providers how they approach treatment. Doing so will help you gain greater insight into what therapy with them might look like, and help you decide whether their approach would work for you!