John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Symptoms as Clues

Fork in road

Frequently people come to therapy because they feel anxious or depressed and they want those symptoms to stop. Fair enough.

But knowing that you’re depressed or anxious is just the beginning. What we really want to know is why these symptoms are occurring, or rather, what they mean. Although it’s true that some individuals inherit a predisposition towards certain kinds of symptoms, this does not mean there is no psychology involved. Symptoms are not causes. They are expressions of underlying issues. Just as your body gives you pain to signal something is wrong, your psyche gives you anxiety and depression to signal the presence of psychological issues. These issues are complex, and may involve thinking patterns, belief systems, conflicted emotions, relational patterns, responses to stressors, and possibly temperament.

Sure, you can take a pill to feel better. Frankly, drug companies would rather you did. They’d rather you chalk up your symptoms to the so-called “chemical imbalance.” The chemicals they’re talking about are neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain. What drug companies fail to mention, however, is that there is no actual medical test for a chemical imbalance. Moreover, medication isn’t the only thing that alters your neurochemistry. Life changes your brain chemistry. As does therapy.

It’s not that I’m against taking pills for relief of symptoms. I routinely refer people to psychiatrists, especially in cases of severe, unremitting depression. Indeed, some clients need both therapy and medication to combat their symptoms before they can begin to function again. What I am suggesting, however, is that we listen to your symptoms in a deep way. Not just as something to be rid of, but as clues to your psychological system.

Sometimes symptoms are just your psyche’s way of telling you that it’s time to trying walking a different path. But unless you listen for deeper meanings, how will you know which way to go?

(photo credit: simonsterg)