The emphasis of psychodynamic therapy is on the dynamic forces within the client – on drives they may not be conscious of. The Freudian concept of the unconscious is the foundation of contemporary psychodynamic thought, and what interests me is how unconscious forces are involved in a concept elucidated by thinkers both psychodynamic and otherwise: that of trauma.
Modern day neuroscience and contemporary models of the brain often negate consideration of unconscious drives due to the inability to empirically prove their existence, and many pathologies are increasingly being ascribed to physical causes, but this does not, to my mind at least, satisfactorily account for the issue of trauma and the human response to it. My belief is that all beings experience trauma, even if the worst that one has experienced is the painful separation of birth itself. Traumatic experience is “a pervasive fact of modern life” that can live on in individual bodies long after the event, and even cross “generations in families, communities and countries” – but does not “have to be a life sentence” (Levine, 1997).
The role of the unconscious in the response to trauma is something that psychodynamic work seeks to address. A typical psychodynamic aim is the removal of obstacles to the processing of emotions that remain locked in the body as a result of traumatic events. “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it” (Spinoza, as cited in Frankl, 1984).
One relevant aspect of this in my own lived experience was that of the painful feelings that arose internally as a result of external, systemic causes. Psychodynamic approaches tend to focus on individual relational experiences and the internal reactions to these, but in my practice I also ensure systemic causes are, at the very least, named as causes - as having a role in individual relational experiences. Structural oppression is the socially mandated experience of being one-down, and the psychological impact of this has been explored through the psychodynamic lens in terms of the adaptations required of us when we experience ourselves as less-than, and the costs of these adaptations (Turner, 2020). This understanding – of the way external systems of oppression can give rise to, or further compound, oppressive internal, unconscious systems – is an important part of my own psychodynamic practice.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.
Levine, P. A., & Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma: the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books: California, CA.
Turner, D. (2020). Fight the power: A heuristic exploration of systemic racism through dreams. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 00, 1–6. doi: 10.1002/capr.12329
Thoughts on Therapy and Mental Health