Woman looks out over view of city at sunset.Psychodynamic therapy is the psychological interpretation of mental and emotional processes. Rooted in traditional psychoanalysis, it draws from object relations, ego psychology, and self psychology. It was developed as a simpler, less-lengthy alternative to psychoanalysis. 

Psychodynamic therapy aims to address the foundation and formation of psychological processes. In this way, it seeks to reduce symptoms and improve people’s lives.

Core Principles of Psychodynamic Therapy

In psychodynamic therapy, therapists help people gain insight into their lives and present-day problems. They also evaluate patterns people develop over time. To do this, therapists review certain life factors with a person in therapy:

  • Emotions
  • Thoughts
  • Early-life experiences
  • Beliefs

Recognizing recurring patterns can help people see how they avoid distress or develop defense mechanisms to cope. This insight may allow them to begin changing those patterns.

The therapeutic relationship is central to psychodynamic therapy. It can demonstrate how a person interacts with their friends and loved ones. In addition, transference in therapy can show how early-life relationships affect a person today. Transference is the transferring one’s feelings for a parent, for example, onto the therapist. This intimate look at interpersonal relationships can help people understand their part in relationship patterns. It may empower them to transform that dynamic.

Psychodynamic therapy is available to individuals, couples, families, or groups. It can be used as short-term or long-term therapy. Brief psychodynamic therapy is goal-oriented and can take as many as 25 sessions. Long-term psychodynamic therapy may take two years or more.

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Accessing the Unconscious

People tend to develop defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms may keep painful feelings, memories, and experiences in the unconscious. A few common defense mechanisms include:

Psychodynamic therapists encourage people to speak freely about their emotions, desires, and fears. Being open may help reveal vulnerable feelings that have been pushed out of conscious awareness. According to psychodynamic theory, behavior is influenced by unconscious thought. Once vulnerable or painful feelings are processed, the defense mechanisms reduce or resolve.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM)

The Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) was released in 2006. Its goal is to offer a conceptual framework for human psychological functioning. It also aims to serve as an alternative to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM outlines observable symptoms associated with mental health conditions. Meanwhile, the PDM describes subjective experiences.

Improvisational Psychodynamic Music Therapy

One approach to psychodynamic therapy is psychodynamic music therapy. This innovative and creative form of therapy involves exploration of various instruments. Guitars, drums, and pianos a just of few of the instruments used. This kind of music therapy is non-directive. It does not require any musical background. Instead, people are encouraged to improvise and express themselves through music in any way they wish.

Music therapists are highly trained to identify various personality traits and emotional issues. They can do this by observing how a person in therapy creates music. As they build their therapeutic alliance, they also participate in the music making. This can help strengthen their bond and help the therapist access deeper communication tools. For people with high levels of anxiety or fear, the music can be soothing. It may provide an element of release during difficult therapeutic sessions.


  1. Knekt, P., Lindfors, O., Härkänen, T., Välikoski, M., Virtala, E., et al. (2008). Randomized trial on the effectiveness of long- and short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy and solution-focused therapy on psychiatric symptoms during a 3-year follow-up. Psychological Medicine, 38(5), 689-703. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S003329170700164X
  2. Leichsenring, F., Hiller, W., Weissberg, M., & Leibing, E. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy: Techniques, efficacy, and indications. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 60(3), 233-59. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/213135027?accountid=1229
  3. Luborsky, Ellen, O’Reilly-Landry, Maureen, and Arlow, Jacob. (2008). Psychoanalysis. In Raymond J. Corsini and Danny Wedding (Eds.), Current Psychotherapies (pp. 15–62). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education