The Role of Symptoms

symptomsIt’s safe to say that many people enter therapy for what we therapists refer to as “symptom reduction.” “Help me get rid of my anxiety and depression,” clients say. It makes sense – we all want our anxiety and depression to go away because these symptoms cause us so much pain. At the same time, these symptoms are just that, symptoms of a deeper, as yet unknown, problem(s). In the same way that a physician will not just treat a patient’s fever but attempt to diagnose the underlying illness, so too I see the job of psychotherapy as discovering deeper causes and root problems.

Of course there are a variety of therapies and therapists out there. Many do, in fact, focus almost solely on symptom reduction. While learning breathing techniques for your anxiety, for example, is helpful and effective in the short term, it will not help you understand why you are anxious. Likewise, implementing behavioral strategies such as getting out of bed earlier and exercising can reduce depression, they do not help a client understand the cause of their depression. So while behavior changes (and medications) have their place, they generally do not lead to deeper understanding of oneself and longer term character change.

The way I view anxiety, depression, and other symptoms is as information. These painful experiences are trying to communicate something important to you. Therefore, I will ask, “What is your anxiety telling you?” “What is the role of depression in your life right now?” “How are these experiences related to your past?” We need to bear with the discomfort of our symptoms for a time to learn more about them, understand the deeper causes, and develop a different relationship with parts of ourselves. If we don’t do this deeper work, we risk repeating our symptoms over and over again without experiencing long lasting relief and meaningful change.

For example, hypothetical client Jane Doe enters therapy with high anxiety and recurring episodes of depression. As we work together we discover that Jane is very hard on herself and constantly criticizes herself for perceived failures and shortcomings. We also discover that Jane’s mother was extremely critical of her growing up. Jane gains new insight about the internalized critical voice of her mother. She also understands that her own self-criticism has been her best attempt at protecting herself from painful feelings of failure and disappointing others. As she begins to understand herself more, she is able to separate herself from her mother, and has less anxiety about failure. She understands she doesn’t have to be perfect to please a mother who can never be pleased and learns to feel “good enough.” Jane also begins to understand that her mother was never there for her in the ways she needed her to be. Her mother was too focused on herself and her perfectionistic standards to care for Jane and support her emotionally. Jane understands that she never learned to care for herself which leads her to run herself ragged until she burns out and feels depressed. With this new understanding Jane realizes the need for self-care and kindness towards herself.

The deeper (and longer term) work I describe almost always has the effect of helping clients become kinder, more compassionate, and more accepting towards themselves. This allows them to make decisions about their lives that reduce and even prevent painful symptoms of anxiety and depression. By discovering and integrating multiple parts of us, we are able to live a more whole and meaningful life with less suffering.

Katrina Taylor, LMFT-Associate. 512-270-9002

Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.

Written by Katrina Taylor

Katrina Taylor, LMFTA, is a therapist in private practice in Austin, TX.