Depth Psychology: History and Meaning

Sigmund Freud is a strong echo in the history of psychology because he showed the world that there was a deeper part to the human psyche, hardly knowable and seemingly bottomless: the unconscious. Understanding the unconscious has helped create new theories about the workings of the mind and has paved the way for helping those suffering from mental health problems.¹

Freud’s discovery came to fruition with the help of his mentor, Josef Breuer, and gave birth to a new approach to studying human psychology. This approach, aiming to bring light to the depths of the psyche, would be later named “depth psychology.” Read on to learn about its meaning and history.

Depth psychology - A path to unravel the unconscious

An illustration of a person standing inside a duplicated human head looking at a grass field.

Depth psychology has shed light on the hidden workings of the human psyche.

What does depth psychology mean in psychology?

Depth psychology is a term defined by Josef Breuer, a reputable physician from Austria and Freud’s mentor, that refers to psychologists' approach to studying the unconscious.

The unconscious is a repository of thoughts, feelings, and emotions outside conscious awareness or influence. Freud insisted on the idea that within the unconscious lived mostly the repressed segments of the conscious mind.

However, one of his disciples, Carl Gustav Jung, proposed that there is more to the unconscious than repressed input. He believed in a collective unconscious containing archetypes or universal images and ideas present cross-culturally.²

The depth psychology field of study would take various forms across history, influenced by prominent psychologists who came after Freud, such as Carl Gustav Jung and Alfred Adler.

What is depth work in therapy?

Depth psychology explores unconscious thought using seemingly insignificant events such as slips of the tongue, spontaneous humor, dreams, and coincidences. This exploration can lead to healing by illuminating repressed thoughts, emotions, and ideas and leading them back into conscious awareness.

This is an interdisciplinary endeavor that draws its understanding from literature, philosophy, and symbolism. Jung’s discoveries of the collective unconscious highlighted the importance of extending the study of the psyche from the individual and into the culture.

Who founded depth psychology?

An old library filled with shelves full of books.

Over time, depth psychology has diversified its methods for exploring the workings of the unconscious.

The initial stages of depth psychology’s use are seen in the case of Anna O. In this famous case, Sigmund Freud and his mentor used the idea of talk therapy for the first time. Talk therapy involves the interpretations of dreams, free association, and various spontaneous occurrences associated with the patient.

“Anna O.” was the pseudonym for Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of Josef Breuer’s who developed paralysis and an array of other symptoms while caring for her dying father. Freud proposed that Anna’s psychological distress and trauma became neurological symptoms through a process that he would call “hysterical conversion.” ³

Breuer used hypnosis and free association to help identify the repressed traumatic feelings buried within her unconscious. This process helped alleviate her symptoms and inspired Freud to develop, with the help of Breuer's insights, the psychoanalytic approach.

Depth psychology is an umbrella term that encompasses most theories and methods that focus on the unconscious. Historically, psychoanalysis was the first concrete instantiation of depth psychology, but over time other theories and therapies dealing with the unconscious emerged, such as analytical psychology and psychodynamic therapy.

The psychoanalytic process is based on a therapeutic relationship between the analyst and the patient. The patient narrates a life story that is reviewed and revised by the therapist to better account for past and present events surrounding the patient’s life. This reconstruction of the patient’s story leads to diminished personal distress and an enhanced sense of well-being. In the case of Bertha Pappenheim, this meant linking the traumatic events associated with caring for her dying father to her neurological symptoms.⁴

Psychoanalysis would later branch out to psychodynamic therapy, and Freud’s descendants would create other similar approaches. According to the American Psychological Association, the main difference between the two lies in the therapy's duration and the therapist's qualifications.

In psychoanalysis, therapy may involve long-term treatment, which usually means years of therapy sessions. The therapist providing this treatment must also be a certified psychoanalyst.

Psychodynamic therapy, on the other hand, is a broader term for a wide range of treatment methods and techniques that are based on the principles of psychoanalysis. It is not limited to the theories of Freud, and the therapy is generally shorter in duration than psychoanalysis. This practice explores thoughts and experiences to gain insights into the patient’s current behavior and difficulties. Psychodynamic therapists may be trained in psychoanalysis, but they may also have undergone training in psychodynamic therapy as their therapeutic orientation. Some examples of psychodynamic therapies include transference-focused psychotherapy, dynamic interpersonal therapy, and short-term psychoanalytic psychotherapy (STPP).

Depth psychology has evolved over the years from the assumptions of a single case to an entire field of research.  This field of therapy continually renews itself by going deeper into revealing the nature of the relationship between the unconscious and the conscious mind.

Is depth psychology effective?

Psychoanalysis was a revolutionary movement at the time of its creation, as it took a different approach to mental health care. The ideas of Freud and his associates resulted in many new assumptions about the workings of the mind.

The research methods used in making these assumptions were centered around observations from clinical practice and anecdotal evidence. Because there was no trace of clinical or experimental studies, these research methods had not yet been made the gold standard of psychological research.

Once the Cognitive and Behavioral approaches to understanding the mind were formed, scientists tested their hypothesis about the human mind using experiments.⁵ One of the fundamental breakthroughs that differentiated Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) from psychodynamic theories was the emphasis on the present state of mind. CBT focuses on understanding and reshaping the influence of current thoughts, behavior, and feelings of a person rather than exploring past experiences or unconscious processes.

Gradually, these approaches gained more and more scientific support, leaving psychoanalysis, which has based its assumptions on anecdotes and clinical practice, to be considered more pseudoscience than true science.

The clinical setting or context for CBT was different from the one related to psychoanalysis. In CBT, people do not lie on a couch for years and tell a therapist their life story, reaching into the depths of their problems. Instead, patients learn how to identify automatic thoughts with negative influence and replace these with rational or functional thought patterns and healthy ways of coping with emotions. In just a few therapy sessions, someone could significantly improve their symptoms. Since CBT has provided fast results and is scientifically supported, this branch of psychology has become very popular.⁵

In the 1970s, the CBT approach seemed to be the key to treating mental disease, and psychodynamic therapies looked like a thing of the past, but recent experiments and studies suggested otherwise.⁶ One of the first randomized-controlled studies of psychoanalytic treatment for treatment-resistant depression showed, after 18 months of analysis, that 44% of the study’s participants no longer met the criteria for major depression, compared to 10% of participants receiving different kinds of therapy such as CBT. The improvements achieved from psychoanalytic therapy were stronger than the results from other therapies, including CBT.⁷

Research also shows the benefits of psychodynamic therapy. A 2004 meta-analysis showed improvement in 92% of psychodynamic therapy patients, suggesting that this approach is just as good as others in treating mental disorders.⁸ Furthermore, a systematic review of 23 randomized clinical trials revealed that psychodynamic therapy is efficient for a wide range of mental ailments.⁹

There was a time when psychoanalytic therapy was deemed to be one of the worst types of therapy due to its assumed ineffectiveness and lack of scientific support. However, the body of research supporting psychoanalytic and psychodynamic approaches has been growing over the years. Psychodynamic approaches and psychoanalysis can help people get better and are even more well-suited in some cases than other therapies are.

Ways to study depth psychology

To study more about depth psychology or to become a clinical psychologist and help others using a psychodynamic approach, you might pursue a PsyD degree or a PhD program.

The doctor of psychology degree (PsyD) trains students to provide evidence-based psychotherapeutic treatments as clinical psychologists. A doctor of philosophy (PhD) following a doctoral program in psychology focuses more on research than on clinical practice.

A PhD program will help students gain skills relevant to clinical psychology, while those working on a doctoral project will develop more appropriate skills for careers in academia or other professional research settings. A PhD student’s work could be the basis of new discoveries and theories in the psychology field.

Compared to the skills built by following a Ph.D. program, a student pursuing a PsyD program will have more chances to work as a clinical psychologist in private practice and to hold positions such as forensic or school psychologist. They will be closer to people and their problems and can guide them toward healing.

The American Psychological Association recognizes both PhD and PsyD in clinical psychology. An APA accredited clinical psychologist is a member of the largest professional organization for psychologists worldwide, with 122,000 members. A licensed psychologist accredited by APA is trusted to have undergone a program to develop the skill set and ethics required for becoming a clinician.

Interested in learning more? Check out our Psychology Program Overview or speak with an Admissions Advisor to learn more about our programs.


  1. Ellenberger, H. F. (2006). The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. Basic Books.
  2. Richards, G. (2008). Jung's social psychological meanings. Journal of community & applied social psychology, 18(2), 108-118.
  3. Madva, E. N., Ross, D. A., & Cooper, J. J. (2019). What’s all the hysteria about? A modern perspective on functional neurological disorders. Biological psychiatry, 85(2), e3-e4.
  4. Cohler, B. J., & Galatzer-Levy, R. (2007). What kind of science is psychoanalysis? Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 27(5), 547-582
  5. Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), 427-440.
  6. Courtney, L. B., Connor, M. P., & Settipani, C. A. (2011). History of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in youth. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin. N Am, 20(2), 179-189.
  7. Fonagy, P., Rost, F., Carlyle, J. A., McPherson, S., Thomas, R., Pasco Fearon, R. M., ... & Taylor, D. (2015). Pragmatic randomized controlled trial of long‐term psychoanalytic psychotherapy for treatment‐resistant depression: the Tavistock Adult Depression Study (TADS). World Psychiatry, 14(3), 312-321.
  8. Leichsenring, F., Rabung, S., & Leibing, E. (2004). The efficacy of short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy in specific psychiatric disorders: a meta-analysis. Archives of general psychiatry, 61(12), 1208-1216.
  9. Steinert, C., Munder, T., Rabung, S., Hoyer, J., & Leichsenring, F. (2017). Psychodynamic therapy: as efficacious as other empirically supported treatments? A meta-analysis testing equivalence of outcomes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 174(10), 943-953.

Learn More

Interested in learning more about the programs at Meridian?

Contact An Advisor »Attend an Info Session »
learn more about meridian xllearn more about meridian lglearn more about meridian mdlearn more about meridian sm

San Francisco Bay Area Center

47 Sixth Street
Petaluma, California 94952
+1 (707) 765-1836

Los Angeles: Water Garden Campus

2450 Colorado Avenue
Santa Monica, California 90404
+1 (310) 876-2001

Athens Center

Ermou 56
Athens 10563, Greece
+30 21 1199 0060

Berlin Center

Greifswalder Strasse 226
10405 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 16637734

Johannesburg Center

Atrium on 5th 9th Floor
5th St, Johannesburg, 2196, South Africa
+27 31 822 9032

Istanbul Center

Mecidiyeköy Mahallesi | Lati Lokum Sokak
Çınar Apt. No: 12, Kat: 4, D: 14
Şişli/İstanbul 34387
+1 (833) 256-2295

Meridian University Logo