M. Christina Benson, M.D., D.L.F.A.P.A

Psychiatry-Psychotherapy-Psychoanalysis

How Long Do the Different Kinds of Therapy Take?

“Short Term” or “Brief” Therapy refers to 12 sessions or less.
Any of the previous therapies can be done in a short term way, including psychoanalytic therapy. Brief therapy is usually highly structured and has specified target goals. Goals usually involve reduction of some symptom such as panic attacks, sleep disturbance, fear of flying, or something of that nature. When the symptom resolves or becomes less acute, the therapy is ended.

“Long Term” or “Open-Ended” Therapy refers to 12 sessions or more.
The length depends on the individual person’s issues and desires. It could be 6 months or it could be some years. Therapy might last longer because the problems are woven into a person’s character (or personality) and this requires a longer time to get resolved. Patients may change to a longer approach because there are positive life changes going on and the person wants to continue to improve.

Why Isn’t Short Term Therapy Always the Best Form of Therapy?

There are some issues for which short term, structured therapies are very helpful and some for which they are not. For example, if a person has just been diagnosed with a serious medical problem, they might best be helped by techniques to manage fear, or guided imagery to boost immune functioning, or techniques to reframe panic-inducing perceptions. These are short term goals.

On the other hand, if that same person wants to reevaluate how they’ve lived their life so far, or if unresolved feelings from the loss of a parent have been opened up, or if they want to grieve the losses of health and safety and future that they might be feeling, a short-term therapy that targets surface thoughts or behaviors is not well suited for those goals. Goals like this involve self exploration, and self exploration requires a longer and more organic (less structured) inner process.

What is the Appeal of Longer Term Therapy?

Longer term therapy offers a context in which complicated or lifelong difficulties can be addressed in a deep enough way to create lasting, meaningful changes. In my opinion, it offers a chance to deal with things that, in my view, short term therapy cannot be very effective for. Some difficulties are complex enough that they cannot be resolved in a few sessions of therapy.

Some examples:

A major appeal of longer term “talk” therapy is that it offers a depth of change that nothing else can. For people who feel ready to deal with things they haven’t been able to overcome themselves or in other ways, psychoanalytic therapy offers them a chance to do that.

Is Psychoanalytic Therapy Short Term or Long Term?

Psychoanalytic therapy can be done in a short term way and frequently is done in a short term way . Couples therapy, for example, is often shorter term. If the relationship is basically solid and the two people love each other and wish to stay together, areas of difficulty can often be worked through in a relatively brief time.

Similarly, if an individual is pretty satisfied in their lives overall but has one area that trips them up or causes pain, a brief psychoanalytic approach is often sufficient.