MOST PSYCHOTHERAPIES today begin without any time limit. The therapies do not necessarily last for a long time: many patients recover from their symptoms quickly and terminate, while others drop out before termination. Such discontinued therapies, however, are not specifically construed as time-limited. "Brief therapy" implies a limitation of time that is set in advance. For many it also implies a relatively narrow focus—that is, concentration on a particular set of problems or a particular area of functioning.
We began our own type of brief therapy at the Center for the Study of Neuroses at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute of the University of California, San Francisco. At that center we developed a special research clinic for stress and anxiety with a focus on stress-response syndromes— that is, problems brought about by distressing, fairly recent life events. We developed a time-limited dynamic psychotherapy for the amelioration of such syndromes. Although we concentrated on the effects of the particular disturbing life event, we found that each patient's personality characteristics were prominent in our formulations of the patient's problems and in the plans that we developed for the treatment process.
Our patients were not unusual. Anyone who seeks psychotherapy is under stress, regardless of whether or not a recent serious life event has brought about this state. And psychotherapy itself imposes a threat because the person anticipates exposure and confrontation with ideas and feelings that have usually been warded off, but which nonetheless may have had intrusive consequences. In response to this threat, the patient will display habitual coping styles, often of a defensive or resistive na