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Respecting Symptoms

One of the major contributions modern psychiatry has afforded individuals, couples, families and groups in clinical settings is the reduction of symptoms through psychopharmaceutical drugs. One of the tenets of modern medicine is the relief of symptoms. In fact, this is a multibillion-dollar industry. The slightest ache or pain sends people scurrying to the medicine cabinet, doctor's office, or pharmacy in search of something to make it go away.

There are over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs and illegal drugs that can be obtained to relieve pain, reduce anxiety and depression and even speed one up as in the stimulant medications.

People want instant gratification and they don't want to do the hard work which would be working with the symptoms, working through the thoughts and emotions.

The trouble with the widespread use of many such drugs is that the underlying problems that are producing the symptoms may not be getting addressed just because the symptoms are temporarily relieved. Don't forget about the dire "side effects" these drugs often induce.

The practice, or as I would label it, the habit or compulsion, to reach for a drug to relieve a symptom reflects a widespread attitude that symptoms are inconvenient, useless threats to our ability to live life the way we want to live it and that they should be suppressed or eliminated whenever possible.

There are two major problems with this perspective:

1. First is the common human error of causation which states that because my brain chemistry is out of balance, I am depressed. This has not been proven. Our mind-body-brain system is integrative and complex. It is much more likely that because we are experiencing symptoms of depression due to some sort of loss, denial, etc. the chemicals in the brain reflect that and adjust accordingly.

2. The second problem with this attitude is that what we call symptoms are the body's way of telling us something is out of balance. They are feedback about dis-regulation and dis-ease. Ignoring our body's messages, or worse, suppressing them, may only lead to more severe symptoms and more serious problems later on. The person doing this is not learning how to listen to and trust his own body. Our bodies are wise and will always tell us what we need.

Therapy provides a safe and supportive opportunity for us to learn how to be in touch with ourselves, symptoms and all, and develop a curiosity about them.

Cultivating a practice of mindfulness is a gentle approach with a multitude of benefits. One of my favorite teachers and authors on the subject is Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I highly recommend his books, Wherever You Go, There You Are, and Full Catastrophe Living.

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