Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy

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Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) is a form of short-term psychotherapy developed through empirical, video-recorded research by Habib Davanloo, MD. It is of particular interest to TMS/PPD practitioners because it is recommended by Dr. Arlene Feinblatt, about whom Dr. Sarno wrote, "In particular I am grateful to Arlene Feinblatt, the chief psychologist of our group, for her contribution to the understanding of the psychological basis for TMS."

Dr. Feinblatt has written the following short introduction to ISTDP for the wiki:

An image of Practitioner Arlene Feinblatt
Practitioner Arlene Feinblatt
Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy

by Dr. Arlene Feinblatt, Ph.D.

ISTDP is a technique based on psychoanalytic theory. A major difference regarding this technique is the handling of resistance. With psychoanalytic work a passive neutrality and indirect focus including free association and dream interpretation are utilized. The hallmark of ISTDP is the unlocking of the unconscious and maintenance of the therapeutic alliance through focus on resistence and defenses as well as undoing of the idea of therapist as omnipotent.

Training in ISTDP involves videotaping of both therapist and patient during sessions. Evaluation of the patient is performed in an open-ended intake - that is, the patient is told to be prepared for a two hour, three hour or even longer session. This enables the therapist to examine how the patient tolerates the process.

The major efforts of the therapist are to help the patient clarify their triangle of feelings. This includes their impulses or feelings, their anxiety and their defenses. A second triangle with which ISTDP therapists work involves using the feelings generated in the session to connect to significant people in the patient's past, current conflicts with people, and their reaction to the therapist or transference. The ego adaptive capacity of the patient determines the rapidity with uncovering can be done.

Working with ISTDP takes a great deal of training. Uncovering of defenses is sensitive work. Once an unconscious therapeutic alliance is established, then, and only then, can interpretations be made. To make such interpretations earlier is to encourage intellectual rumination. I would encourage anyone interested in learning this technique to read the books published by Dr. Habib Davanloo.

Books Recommended by Dr. Feinblatt:

About Dr. Feinblatt:

Dr. Arlene Feinblatt was the first psychotherapist to work with Dr. John Sarno, and she played a pivotal role in developing his TMS treatment protocol. In addition to working with Dr. Sarno for over 30 years, Feinblatt has trained several leading TMS/PPD psychologists. She also served as a Supervisor at the Clinical Health Psychology at NYU School of Medicine and was a member of the Faculty of the New York Center for Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy. In addition to these roles, Dr. Feinblatt has been a Clinical Assistant Professor at New York University School of Medicine since 1993.

In addition, John Sarno, MD, has endorsed Reaching Through Resistance, a recent book about ISTDP by Allan Abbass, who is described later on this page. Dr. Sarno wrote, "Dr. Abbass makes an important contribution to the clinician’s understanding of the Intensive Dynamic Short Term Psychotherapy (ISTDP) treatment model, through a well-written and presented book, rich with clinical material based on extensive experience and research. The book provides substantial support to the clinician engaged in treating the ever-increasing population of persons with psychosomatic symptoms."

The underlying theory of the ISTDP approach is quite similar to that of the PPD approach. The fundamental understanding of ISTDP is that when individuals experience emotional disturbances or trauma the event may result in wide array of emotions that the individual may not be able to adequately handle. This results in these unwanted emotions becoming repressed and avoided. Davanloo discovered that through time, certain events may rekindle these repressed emotions resulting in anxiety and defenses. The exacerbation of this anxiety and repressed emotions can create a variety of physical symptoms such as gastrointestinal problems, skin disorders, and chronic pain.

Using the ISTDP approach in therapy first requires the therapist to explain the psychological process to the patient followed by working with the patient to overcome the process. The therapist should begin to examine the patient as soon as they enter the office and attempt to notice any signs of repressed emotions such as tense muscles or hand clinching. During the interview the therapist should point out noticeable ways the patient represses their emotions.

The goal of the approach is to have the patient realize that they are repressing emotions, so they can stop the process and experience their feelings. When this happens anxiety and physical symptoms drop suddenly. This also allows the therapist and patient an opportunity to begin to work through the once repressed feelings and emotions. In some cases just one breakthrough is needed to bring about major symptom improvement, however in most instances several of these events are needed before the symptoms recede. [Source]

According to the Washington School of Psychiatry:

“Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy is designed to achieve long term structural character change in briefer periods than with traditional psychodynamic therapy. Based on psychodynamic theory, it uses active techniques designed to focus, clarify, and intensify the therapeutic process. This model of treatment was first developed by Habib Davanloo. Davanloo recognized that rapid character change could take place through helping the patient relinquish defenses against emotional experience. He accomplished this through a method of handling resistance and transference which mobilizes the patient's unconscious therapeutic alliance. As a result, the patient reveals the core emotions and conflicts which have been responsible for character problems. This model of treatment has shown excellent results with a broad range of patients in numerous psychotherapy studies over the past 35 years.”
According to Health Care Economics:
“The brief dynamic psychotherapy that Abbass and his team have found can both pack a clinical punch and save money is called intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy. It was founded some 20 years ago by Habib Davanloo, M.D., a professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal. It helps a person address, experience, and deal with blocked emotions and unconscious processes that lead to a wide range of symptom and character problems. Currently there are training programs for it in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, California, and New York.”

Resources for people interested in applying ideas from ISTDP in their own lives

The best way to apply ISTDP principles in your own life is with a trained and experienced ISTDP practitioner. You may use the Practitioner Directory on this site to find an ISTDP practitioner with some familiarity with TMS or may consult other directories via a search engine. If working with a practitioner isn't an option, there are four resources you might want to consider.

The first resource is pages 151-159 of The Divided Mind, by John Sarno, MD. Those pages were actually written by Arlene Feinblatt, who also provided the text at the top of this page. They describe how ISTDP was implemented in Dr. Sarno and Dr. Feinblatt's group at the Rusk Rehabilitation Center in the NYU Langone Medical Center.

The second resource is Unlearn Your Pain, by Howard Schubiner, MD, who included a subsection about ISTDP and integrated some of its thinking into portions of his TMS recovery program.

The third resource is a book entitled Reconnect to your Core: A practical guide on how to feel good and be happy by Kristian S. Nibe, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Oslo, Norway. The book combines ISTDP with findings in neuroscience and packages it for people interested in improving their lives. In an unrelated discussion, a member of our forum wrote about the book that "the book is an accessible explanation of ISTDP. Nibe gives specific advice on uncovering repressed emotions by yourself, with no therapist." While the book focuses on psychological symptoms rather than physical ones, the role of ISTDP in healing TMS is to help resolve people's emotional tension, so it could still be a valuable resource.

The final resource is the website for the aforementioned book, Reconnect to Your Core. It contains 19 free essays written for individuals about a number of core concepts in ISTDP and general psychology. It can be found at

Video introducing ISTDP

Allan Abbass, MD, one of the leading researchers of ISTDP, introduces ISTDP in the following video:

On this site you can also read a summary of seven research articles by Dr. Abbass about ISTDP and somatization (TMS).


ISTDP Resources

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