What is ISTDP Therapy?

By Jared Levenson - Reviewed on May 25, 2023
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Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is a form of psychotherapy that has been developed over the past few decades.

It is based on the principles of psychoanalytic theory and focuses on resolving emotional conflicts and psychological issues in a short period of core training.

The goal of ISTDP therapy is to help people gain insight into their attachment trauma emotions and behavior, as well as to develop healthier ways of coping with life’s challenges.

The Online Mental Health Reviews team is qualified to write about ISTDP therapy, as we possess in-depth knowledge of various mental health treatments and are dedicated to providing accurate, empathetic information.

By including comprehensive info, this article will help make well-informed decisions regarding ISTDP on your path to emotional healing and personal growth.

History and Development

ISTDP was developed by Dr. Habib Davanloo at McGill University in Canada in the late 1980s. He conducted extensive research on the efficacy of this type of therapy, which included video recordings of his sessions with patients.

This research showed that ISTDP was more effective than traditional forms of psychotherapy for treating anxiety disorders and other psychological issues. Since then, many other therapists have adopted this approach to treating psychotic disorders in their clients, leading to its widespread use today.

What is intense short-term psychotherapy (ISTDP)?

Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is a form of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Habib Davanloo of McGill University.

  • It is an active, focused form of therapy that strives to attain permanent character transformation in shorter periods by using intense and focused therapeutic techniques.
  • ISTDP integrates findings from psychodynamic theories, attachment theory, neuroscience, and cognitive-behavioral therapies into a new set of techniques for treating anxiety disorders and the resulting somatic symptoms.
  • It focuses on emotions and resolving internal conflict, helping people to identify and address underlying issues that may be causing them distress.

Through this process, individuals can gain insight into their feelings and behaviors to make lasting changes in their lives. You can read more about this innovative process on the ISTDP Institute’s website (https://istdpinstitute.com/resources/intensive-short-term-dynamic-psychotherapy-an-introduction/).

How Does ISTDP Therapy Work?

LIVE ISTDP Therapy Session

Intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP) is based on the principles of psychodynamic theory and integrates findings from research to create a complex set of techniques for treating anxiety disorders and their resulting somatic symptoms.

ISTDP therapy works by helping the patient identify and resolve deep emotional and psychological difficulties that may be causing or contributing to their anxiety.

The therapist will use various techniques such as free association, transference, dream analysis, and confrontation to help the patient gain insight into their emotions and behavior.

What Are Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy Techniques?

ISTDP is an approach to cognitive therapy that combines elements from psychoanalysis, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and interpersonal therapy.

Techniques used in ISTDP include exploring dynamics between patient and therapist, identifying core beliefs and assumptions, challenging maladaptive behaviors/thoughts, and providing support to make changes.

What are the Steps of ISTDP?

The steps followed in ISTDP (according to Wikipedia’s ISTDP page) include inquiry, establishing the triangle of person, identifying defenses, building the capacity to tolerate unconscious material, and working through core conflicts.

  • Inquiry involves questioning the patient about their life history and current situation to gain an understanding of their psychological functioning.
  • Establishing the triangle of person allows the patient to identify their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors about other people.
  • Identifying defenses helps recognize how the patient might be using defense mechanisms for protection from uncomfortable emotions painful feelings or memories.
  • Building the capacity to tolerate the unconscious processes and material helps one become comfortable with exploring the inner world and facing difficult emotions and memories.
  • Working through core conflicts explores unresolved issues from childhood or past experiences that are impacting current functioning.

What Are The Principles Of ISTDP?

The main principles of ISTDP include anxiety assessment and regulation, defense identification, and restructuring, identifying unconscious emotions, alliance versus resistance, and anxiety discharge.

What is ISTDP used for?

Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is used to help people with a variety of psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety, and trauma. It is also used to treat relationship issues, personality disorders, and other mental health conditions.


One major benefit of ISTDP is its ability to provide rapid relief from symptoms associated with psychological issues such as depression, panic disorder, or anxiety.

This type of therapy also helps people gain insight into their emotions and behavior so they can make positive changes in their lives and in their current relationships. Additionally, since it focuses on resolving underlying conflicts rather than just treating symptoms,

it can help prevent future episodes from occurring. Finally, because it only takes a few months for most people to complete an entire course of treatment with ISTDP therapy, it’s often much more cost-effective than traditional forms of psychotherapy.

Differences Between CBT & ISTDP Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another popular form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing thoughts and behaviors to reduce distress or improve functioning in certain areas of life.

  • Unlike CBT however, ISTDP does not focus solely on changing thoughts or behaviors but instead works to resolve underlying emotional conflicts that may be causing psychological issues in the first place.
  • Additionally, while CBT typically takes longer than three to six months for most people to complete a full course of treatment; most people can complete an entire course with ISTDP within just a few months time frame, potentially making it more cost effective than traditional forms of psychotherapy like CBT.

What Are The Core Feelings Of ISTDP?

Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is a form of short-term psychotherapy that focuses on helping people to become more aware and in touch with their core emotions.

The primary feelings associated with ISTDP are anger, sadness, fear, joy, and surprise.

Through the use of non-interpretive tools such as moment-to-moment tracking of emotional experiencing and pressure to feel, ISTDP helps individuals to recognize and regulate their emotions so they can better understand how their feelings affect them.

By exploring these core feelings in a safe environment, individuals can gain insight into their behavior and work towards making positive changes in their lives.

Is ISTDP Evidence-Based?

Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is an evidence-based form of psychodynamic treatment. For example, one meta-analysis1 of ISTDP writes about ISTDP:

  • It has been developed through empirical, video-recorded research by Habib Davanloo of McGill University and is taught in several countries around the world.
  • ISTDP is effective in treating a wide range of psychological issues, including depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.
  • Research studies have shown that ISTDP can reduce symptoms of distress and improve overall psychological functioning in individuals who receive it.
  • Additionally, the effects of ISTDP are long-lasting with many patients reporting improved mental health even years after their treatment ended.

As such, ISTDP is considered an evidence-based form of psychotherapy for those seeking relief from their psychological symptoms and distress.

What is An ISTDP Therapist?

An ISTDP therapist is a professional who has been trained in Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP).

This type of therapy is based on psychodynamic principles and focuses on helping patients resolve their psychological issues quickly and deeply.

ISTDP therapists use techniques such as affect-focused interventions, somatic experiencing, and resistance analysis to help clients understand their emotions and behaviors.

Through this process, the therapist helps the patient to identify and address underlying issues that may be causing distress. For more information about this process, Wikipedia has a good introduction to ISTDP (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intensive_short-term_dynamic_psychotherapy).

How Many Sessions Are There in ISTDP?

Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is typically conducted in a series of sessions. The number of sessions can vary depending on the individual’s needs and the goals of therapy.

Generally, ISTDP treatment consists of around 10-20 sessions, with each session lasting 90 minutes.

In some cases, follow-up sessions may be recommended months or years after the conclusion of therapy. Research indicates that these follow-up sessions can help to maintain the progress made during ISTDP treatment.

Find In-Network ISTDP Therapist with Talkspace

Talkspace is a well-known online therapy tool that helps people with a range of mental health issues, such as anxiety or trauma. The app puts people in touch with licensed therapists who have experience with these and other mental health problems.

Most importantly, Talkspace lets you choose from a lot of therapists, so you can choose one who specializes in ISTDP treatment.

Talkspace wants to make mental health care easier to get and less expensive for the more than 40 million Americans who have health insurance. The app offers personalized treatment plans, which may include medication, as well as easy-to-use ways to talk, like texting, phone, and video sessions.

In our online review of Talkspace, we talk about how we bought it and share recordings of our therapy and medication meetings with a Talkspace therapist and doctor. When we talked to the doctor, we were moved to tears.

But it’s important to remember that Talkspace might not be the best choice for everyone. For people whose main worry is anxiety or depression, other tools or treatment methods, like Brightside Health, may be better. When picking an online therapy service, it’s important to think about your own needs and preferences.

The ISTDP Triangle of Conflict as a Guide to Focusing Effectively

The ISTDP Triangle of Conflict is a powerful tool for understanding and managing emotions.

It is based on the idea that all emotions are connected and that anxiety, defense, and feeling can be seen as three points in a triangle. This triangle helps therapists identify the underlying causes of a patient’s emotional distress and focus their treatment accordingly.

The triangle also serves as a guide for therapists to effectively focus their interventions on the most relevant issues.

By understanding how anxiety, defense, and feeling interact with each other, therapists can better target the root causes of their patient’s distress and create more effective treatment plans.

ISTDP – The Central Dynamic Sequence

Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is a unique form of psychodynamic treatment that focuses on the Central Dynamic Sequence.

This sequence is based on the idea that emotions are blocked by defenses and that these defenses must be identified and worked through to gain access to the underlying emotions.

The Central Dynamic Sequence consists of four stages:

  1. Identification of defense mechanisms
  2. Recognition of feelings
  3. Exploration of core conflicts
  4. Resolution of those conflicts

Through this process, ISTDP aims to help patients gain insight into their emotions and develop healthier coping strategies.

ISTDP Therapy Conclusion

In conclusion, Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is an effective and powerful therapeutic approach that can bring about lasting change in a shorter time frame.

By addressing unconscious emotions and patterns, ISTDP enables individuals to overcome various mental health challenges and improve their overall well-being. Embrace this transformative therapy, and empower yourself on the journey towards emotional healing and personal growth.

Finally, please know our team has covered similar therapy questions. For example, you may learn about therapy for anger, paying via HSA, your 1st therapy session, finding the right therapist, insurance coverage, women’s issues, ISDTP therapy, and how to talk about your feelings.

We’d love to hear from you too! Tell us what mental health software to review next on Online Mental Health Reviews. If you have stories about using a particular product or know of a discount code, please share so everyone may benefit!

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  1. Abbass, A., Town, J., & Driessen, E. (2012, April 19). Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Outcome Research. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 20(2), 97–108. https://doi.org/10.3109/10673229.2012.677347

If You Are In Crisis

In Case of an Emergency During a crisis, waiting for an online therapy session might not be the safest option. If you require immediate assistance, call 911, especially if there’s a risk of harm to yourself or others. For those contemplating self-harm, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available by dialing 988, providing help 24/7.

Additionally, the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) can be reached at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This free, confidential service offers support, information, and treatment resources for individuals struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, available 24/7, 365 days a year.

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