What is intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP)?

Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is a form of brief, accelerated psychotherapy. It roots lie in psychodynamic psychotherapy and therefore ISTDP maintains that early experiences and subconscious processes contribute to present day distress. Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy was developed by Dr Habib Davanloo of McGill University, Canada. 

Attachment difficulties, early trauma, and life stresses can cause emotional blocks. ISDTP theory maintains that when these blocked emotions are triggered in present day life, an individual may engage in defensive behaviours and coping mechanisms in order to continue to avoid or suppress the undesired emotion. 

Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy encourages individuals to address the roots of their difficulties and acknowledge the life events that activate their defences in the first place. In so doing, the individual will uncover repressed emotions. ISTDP emphasises the importance of experiencing these core emotions. The therapist attempts to help the client clarify their triangle of feelings: their impulses, their anxiety and defences. A second triangle with which ISTDP therapists work involves using the feelings generated in the session to connect to significant people in the patient’s past, current conflicts with people, and their reaction to the therapist or transference.

An ISTDP therapist takes an active approach, helping the client to first identify their unconscious processes and then helping the client to overcome emotional blocks. This may mean focusing strongly on the feelings that arise during the session. ISTDP is tailored to suit the individual and their personal anxiety tolerance. A client with low anxiety tolerance will not be pushed hard to experience feelings that they are not ready to experience. Instead, the sessions will aim to build anxiety tolerance first and increase ability to reflect on bodily sensations. The aim is to create a space in which the client feels able to safely experience previously blocked emotions. 

The idea behind ISTDP is that by removing obstacles to unconscious emotions, healing and transformation can then occur. 

Who benefits from intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy?

ISTDP could benefit anyone who is happy to engage in a short-term and more intensive therapeutic treatment. As this type of therapy is rooted in psychodynamic principles, it would be more appropriate for individuals who feel their present day difficulties may relate to past experiences. 

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Last updated on 24 March 2020