What is Psychoanalysis?

17th October 2023

Psychoanalysis is a highly influential method of treating mental disorders, shaped by psychoanalytic theory, which emphasizes unconscious mental processes and is sometimes described as "depth psychology".

The psychoanalytic movement originated in the meticulous clinical observations and formulations of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, who coined the term. During the 1890s, Freud was associated with another Viennese, Josef Breuer, in studies of neurotic patients under hypnosis. Freud and Breuer observed that, when the sources of patients' ideas and impulses were brought into consciousness during the hypnotic state, the patients showed improvement.

Observing that most of his patients talked freely without being under hypnosis, Freud evolved the technique of free association of ideas. The patient was encouraged to say anything that came into his mind, without regard to its assumed relevancy or propriety.

Freud noted that in the majority of the patients seen during his early practice the events most frequently repressed were concerned with disturbing sexual experiences. Thus he hypothesized that anxiety was a consequence of repressed energy (libido) attached to sexuality; the repressed energy found expression in various symptoms that served as psychological defense mechanisms. Freud and his followers later extended the concept to anxiety to include feelings of fear, guilt and shame consequent to fantasies of aggression and hostility and to fear of loneliness caused by separation form a person on whom the sufferer is dependent.

Freud's free association technique provided him with a tool for studying the meanings of dreams, and other anomalies of life.

He developed the idea of the structure of personality: the id, ego, and superego. The id is the unconscious reservoir of drives and impulses derived from the genetic background and concerned with the preservation and propagation of life. the ego, according to Freud , operates in conscious and preconscious levels of awareness. It is the portion of the personality concerned with the tasks of reality: perception, cognition, and the executive actions. In the superego like the individual's environmentally derived ideals and values and the more of his family and society; the superego serves as a censor on the ego functions.

Conflicts between these three lead to anxiety, defense mechanisms, and can be pathological. Emotional attachments to the psychoanalyst was observed, love and hatred for a previous relationship transferred to the analyst. Others later broke from Freud's dominant method.

Psychoanalysis. Encyclopedia Britannica., (1988), Vol 9. Chicago: University of Chicago.