How Is Behavior Therapy Different Than Psychoanalysis?

Defining and differentiating psychoanalysis and behavioral therapy
Medically Reviewed by
Dr Hamilton
A man's body on a psychoanalyst's sofa, his hands clasped as he describes his upbringing
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If you’re looking for therapy, you might have noticed a new term popping up — but how is behavior therapy different from psychoanalysis or other kinds of talk therapy?

With so many different forms of psychotherapy available, it can be difficult to distinguish among them. And understanding the differences in how these various types of therapy work is crucial to deciding which one is right for you.

Particularly when it comes to behavior therapy, which has only recently become a more mainstream term — thanks in part to the increasingly common implementation of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — it’s not uncommon to have heard of it, but not be sure exactly what it means. 

That’s what we’re here for! We’ll go through the definition and a brief history of each term, then give you a breakdown of the main differences between them and which mental health issues each one is better equipped to treat.

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What is psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis, also known as psychoanalytic therapy, came about in the 1890s through the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed that people’s emotional difficulties are associated with unconscious thoughts and feelings — that is, memories, desires, or emotions that are buried deep in their psyche. 

The treatment involves accessing and analyzing the patient’s personality and experiences, especially those from childhood and early adulthood. Through an unspecified number of sessions with a trained psychoanalyst, the patient will increase their awareness of unconscious harmful (or maladaptive) patterns and unearth any repressed emotions.

The change that psychoanalysis brings about is initiated through this increased awareness, the idea being that once the patient can see the patterns and emotions in their unconscious mind, they’ll be able to integrate them with their conscious mind and challenge any maladaptive thoughts or feelings as they arise.

In general, psychoanalysis is heavily focused on ‘figuring out’ the patient, developing their understanding of themselves and their emotions, and bringing the unconscious and conscious together to improve long-term outcomes.

What is behavior therapy?

Behavior therapy, also known as behavioral psychotherapy or conditioning therapy, is less focused on the patient’s past and unconscious mind — instead, behavior therapy works to assess the patient’s actions and the contexts in which they occur, in order to make behavioral changes that will improve the patient’s emotional state. 

Behavior therapy usually takes place over a set number of sessions (unlike psychoanalysis, which can take years or even decades). During those sessions, the provider will work with the patient to identify the behaviors associated with their negative emotions, and then to implement a range of techniques to train the patient’s brain to reframe their negative thought patterns and improve their mental health.

Which techniques the provider implements will depend on the patient’s particular disorder. Issues like anxiety and depression are often improved by exercises like cognitive restructuring and activity scheduling, while phobias and PTSD often respond to systematic desensitization, aversion therapy, or exposure therapy.

Unlike psychoanalysis, behavior therapy is less interested in the underlying reasons for patients’ mental health struggles and more interested in fixing those struggles through direct disruption of the classical conditioning associated with them.

Behavior therapy vs. psychoanalysis — the bottom line

The core difference between psychoanalysis and behavior therapy is the treatment target: while psychoanalysis seeks to understand the patient’s unconscious mind, behavior therapy is more focused on changing the patient’s behavior to improve outcomes.

Another key difference is how long these therapies take. Psychoanalysis can take years — some people even see their psychotherapist for most of their lives. The work is never truly finished because the subject matter (the patient’s experiences and unconscious thoughts and feelings) is constantly evolving. Behavior therapy, on the other hand, is tightly focused on a particular context or issue and uses techniques that show results relatively quickly.

A patient may engage in behavior therapy multiple times over a period of years, depending on what happens in their personal or professional life and on how much management their mental health requires. But each engagement will likely take place over a specified number of sessions.

Which type of therapy you choose will depend on various factors, but probably the most important one is your goal for your time in therapy. Do you want to understand yourself better, to dig deep into your psyche and discover your unconscious desires and repressed memories or emotions? Then psychoanalysis is probably a good place to start.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for solutions, for actionable techniques that can help you change the way your emotions relate to the context of your outer world, behavior therapy is likely the right choice.

Therapists created Youper to make mental healthcare accessible to everyone. Youper is a mental health chatbot that guides you through interactive CBT Therapy exercises to help you calm anxiety, improve your relationships, be more productive, and improve your mood. Youper is available on your own time and schedule wherever and whenever needed.

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