Common Psychodynamic Treatments: Free Association, Therapist Interpretation, and Catharsis

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Assessing the Psychodynamic Model: Strengths and Weaknesses

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:10 Psychodynamic Treatment
  • 1:28 Free Association
  • 3:12 Interpretation
  • 4:42 Catharsis
  • 6:24 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

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. 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.


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?

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account