Symptoms vs. Root Cause

The Annoyance of Symptoms

Our feelings often produce pesky symptoms, like inability to concentrate for a depressed person, constant hand-washing for an OCD sufferer, or nail-biting for an anxious person. Symptoms like these can cause secondary irritation for the person who is already suffering psychologically. At their extreme, the symptoms in and of themselves can make life nearly unlivable.

Sufferers of OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, sometimes engage in anxiety-related behaviors for 3-4 hours a day (such as washing hands, checking repeatedly that doors are locked, or counting rituals). Apart from the emotional discomfort, these symptomatic behaviors alone can take up so much of the individual’s time that other, more meaningful aspects of life are squeezed out.

That’s why many people seek out antidotes to lessen their symptoms, but never actually address the root of the problem. 

A classic example is an insecure girlfriend who insists upon constant contact with her boyfriend to be sure of his love. Hoping to soothe her anxious heart, she texts him incessantly, needing an instant response. Or she obsessively checks his social media to reassure herself there are no hints of infidelity. These “checking” behaviors may quiet her fears for an hour or two. But she is only managing the symptoms of her insecurity, rather than its root cause. Her deep-seated belief that she is unlovable remains intact, and she will need her boyfriend’s assurance an infinite number of times, because she will never be able to really believe him.

A person who suffers from profound social phobia might drink like a fish to loosen up momentarily in social settings. But while his inhibitions may vanish for a night, his deep sense of shame and self-loathing returns with the rising of the sun.

A workaholic gets a full-body massage every week to “deal with the stress”. Sure, massages work wonders to relax the body, but the stress reemerges instantly because this fellow continues to be subconsciously convinced that he is nothing if not productive. Tasks, emails, and deadlines await.

Self Medication as Our New Normal

We are a culture who self-medicates symptoms without even thinking about it. We live in an age of modern convenience where feeling better is just a pill away. So, why shouldn’t we?

We drink coffee to feel energized and awake at all times, ignoring our body’s natural patterns and need for rest. (I am guilty of this!) We go shopping to get cool stuff that will minimize our loneliness for a few days. We go from one codependent romance to the next, trying to outsmart our own impotence and sense of worthlessness. These behaviors ease our suffering temporarily by distracting us from our deep sense of shame. But their effects inevitably wear off. Why? Because they do not address our profound needs, the cries of our souls for meaning, significance, and love.

Therapy for Wholistic Healing

Therapy can be a way to explore the root cause of our painful emotions. Rather than slapping bandaids on our gaping wounds, good therapy pushes into the pain. It strives to understand the heartache rather than masking it. Therapy recognizes feelings as helpful signposts that point to the individual’s unique way of seeing themselves and the world. Good therapy acknowledges the God-given longings of our hearts and strives to comprehend where these longings are getting thwarted.

Pressing into emotional pain instead of running away from it is counterintuitive to many people. A lot of us have learned to survive by turning a blind eye to certain aspects of our experiences. Otherwise it feels as though the emotional pain would swallow us. Avoidance seems like the only option for psychological survival when the pain is extreme and we have no idea how to work through it. We have become masters at temporary relief of symptoms through distraction and avoidance techniques. For many people, “coping” means ignoring at all costs.

Likewise, many people intuitively want to ignore the past, seeing no point in dredging up painful memories. And indeed, this philosophy of “forgetting the past” seems logical, inasmuch as it makes no sense to focus on distressing memories that are no longer relevant. The problem with this approach occurs when the experiences of the past are painfully intruding upon the present, often without being recognized or named. My intention in therapy with my clients is to understand the integration between the past and present. Pinpointing the moment we adopted a certain way of seeing ourselves and others can shake up these beliefs that we have assumed for years without ever questioning them. Understanding can go a long way towards enabling the laying down of new “organizing principles” in order to achieve deep, wholistic healing.

When we as selves interact with others, we feel things. Then we try to make sense of what we feel. Usually on an unconscious level, we make our best efforts to connect the dots and come to conclusions about the meaning of our interactions. What do these experiences say about who I am as a person, and about the trustworthiness of other people? The meaning we make out of our relational experiences can serve as something of a template for future relationships. For example, if when I was a kid, I learned that I could get the most attention by being good at school and soccer, I may grow into an adult who seeks love through achievement.

These meanings contain both a cognitive component and an emotional component, but the cognitive and emotional are inseparably intertwined. That’s why in therapy, we follow the emotions to get to the meanings. Rather than avoiding distressing feelings and recollections, we create space for them. Having a purely intellectual, “left-brained” conversation is rarely impactful. If therapy doesn’t engage emotions, it is unlikely to make a lasting change.

Beyond providing space to feel, therapy creates a relational context. Contrary to popular opinion, therapists are just as human as everyone else. When we build a relationship with a client, it is a human relationship. Human relationships are filled with vulnerabilities. As humans, we have unspeakable ability to hurt each other and to heal each other. Engaging our unquestioned beliefs in a relational context is both terribly risky and profoundly beautiful. And that is how therapy addresses the roots of our painful emotions rather than merely the symptoms.

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