Surreal artistic portrait of silhouette inside swirling lightDepth psychotherapy describes a range of approaches to therapy that take the unconscious into account, rather than one specific modality. This interdisciplinary approach to treatment is based on the idea that all people possess traits or elements of nature that may influence, often unconsciously, their natural processes.

These processes—such as the ability to feel, choose, work, love, or think freely—may be affected negatively by certain of these elements, and people may seek treatment in order to resolve distress experienced as a result of any unbalanced processes. Depth therapies may help individuals explore and consciously realize those forces having an effect and study them in order to better understand their present situation. 

Development and Theory of Depth Therapy

The term "depth psychology" was first used at the end of the 19th century by Eugen Bleuler, director of Zurich's Burghölzli Asylum (at which Carl Jung later practiced psychiatry). Pioneers in the field such as Carl Jung, Pierre Janet, and Otto Rank contributed to current usage of the term, which is to broadly describe those therapy and research approaches attempting to explore the depths of the unconscious mind. These approaches combine elements of psychoanalysis and Jungian psychology, with transpersonal psychology and existentialism among the other notable influences. 

Depth therapy can describe several models of therapy, but it is divided into three main schools: psychoanalysis, individual psychology, and analytical psychology. Psychoanalysis is based on Sigmund Freud's ideas, individual psychology on Alfred Adler's, and analytical psychology, Carl Jung's

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The basic theory underlying depth therapy is the idea that the human psyche is a partially conscious and partially unconscious process that stores experiences that have been repressed and personal concerns as well as collective and archetypal "forces." Depth psychology considers what is referred to as the soul, or the point of interaction between the psyche's transpersonal and personal aspects, to be an essential part of the discussion in a therapy session. Engaging and incorporating the unconscious psyche into treatment is an essential tenet of depth therapy, as uncovering the layers of the psyche is believed by depth psychologists to be an important component of increased emotional well-being, self-discovery, and growth. 

How Does Depth Therapy Work? 

Depth therapy sessions are conducted individually. The bond between the therapist and person in treatment is particularly emphasized in depth therapy approaches, as the exploration of the unconscious may necessitate high levels of trust and acceptance. A session may involve the exploration of current life events as well as past experiences; in either case, the therapist supports the person in treatment through the process of self-awareness and inner wisdom of the client.

Therapists may help those in treatment through the exploration of any unconscious conditions, offering support and guidance as the individual examines and ponders them in order to understand them fully. The new information may then be used as a tool for the development of more positive traits and elements that can be integrated first on the conscious level and eventually on the unconscious level. 

Techniques used in depth therapy to facilitate growth and change include:

  • Socratic questioning, which involves the therapist asking the person in treatment a series of warm and gentle, but also challenging, questions. These questions are used to help people develop an increased awareness of their unconscious motivations and early experiences. Later in therapy, Socratic questioning may be used to help people identify alternative and more rational plans for actions, when actions may otherwise be overly influenced by unconscious factors.
  • Guided and eidetic imagery, which is used by the therapist to guide an individual through exploration of the full sensory experience of early memories. Through detailed exploration of any experiences that led to feelings of inferiority or discouragement, the therapist can help elicit awareness and offer support and encouragement as the person in therapy remembers early images.
  • Role playing future scenarios, which can provide a safe place for those in therapy to practice alternative and rational plans for action. Role playing can include practice with progressively more challenging scenarios, so individuals can have the opportunity to practice new behaviors and ways of thinking with the support and acceptance of the therapist. 

What Issues Can Depth Therapy Help With?

Individuals with deep-rooted emotional concerns, trauma, or issues they do not fully understand may find depth therapy to be a beneficial mode of therapy. Those who experience depression, anxiety, relationship issues, sexual concerns, compulsions, or a variety of life challenges may be able to explore and understand the roots of these difficulties through depth therapy. Generally, depth therapies do not focus on a specific problem or issue, instead seeking to address the entire scope of an individual's conscious and unconscious emotions.

Individuals wishing to spend time more deeply exploring the things that led them to seek treatment may find depth therapy a useful approach. Studies have shown depth therapy may have long-lasting, significant results. It is typically a lengthier approach than solution-focused therapies, and individuals wishing to spend time more deeply exploring the things that led them to seek treatment may find depth therapy a useful approach. One outcome that may often result from depth therapy is an increase in self-awareness and a deeper understanding of the self. Those who are experiencing difficulty understanding their life purpose or are searching for a sort of higher calling may seek out some form of depth therapy to gain insight into their unconscious conditioning. As a result, they may feel a greater sense of authentic self and an increased sense of liberation from the concerns affecting them and may find themselves with an increased capacity to maintain strong, healthy inter- and intrapersonal relationships. 

Depth therapy requires individuals to engage in abstract thinking. The techniques used call for those in therapy to consider multiple meanings of concepts, explore patterns in their behavior, and consider non-literal meanings. Sometimes people are unwilling, unable, or would simply prefer not to engage in abstract thinking, and depth therapy may not be ideal for those who prefer a more concrete approach to therapy. 

Training for Depth Therapy

Depth therapy is typically offered by mental health practitioners called psychotherapists. Depth therapy is just one type of treatment a therapist may offer. The American Psychoanalytic Association regulates training programs through which practitioners can become certified in the practice of depth therapy. Certification in psychoanalysis typically takes at least four years of extensive study. 

In order to participate in a program accredited by the American Psychoanalytic Association, an individual must hold one of the following degrees:

  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
  • A PhD in psychology, social work, or another mental health discipline 
  • A master’s degree in a related field in which the master’s degree is the highest clinical degree, such as marriage and family therapy or psychiatric nursing

Concerns and Limitations of Depth Therapy

Depth therapy is typically a lengthy and relatively expensive form of therapy. Before starting depth therapy, the therapist should share information about the potential costs associated with the treatment. Individuals seeking therapy should also be aware that other forms of treatment may address the issues prompting them to seek treatment in a shorter period of time. Due to a desire to decrease the cost of health care, many insurance companies require providers of therapy to conduct planned and time-limited therapy. Depth therapy is not well-suited to the constraints of many health insurance companies, and people seeking treatment should be aware their treatment may not be covered by insurance. 

Historically, the various forms of depth therapy were used to treat a number of mental health conditions, but according to recent studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from mental health practitioners, depth therapy may be better suited to some individuals than others. These approaches typically involve intense emotional work and require a high level of motivation on the part of the individual participating in treatment. Some individuals may prefer a briefer, more solution-focused treatment approach. Depth therapy also requires people to confront feelings and memories that may be painful, and those participating in depth therapy should understand the approach will likely elicit strong, potentially negative emotions and that they may feel worse before they begin to feel better. 


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