Symptoms, Affects, and Coping (or not...)


Many people only think of looking for 'professional help' once they start experiencing 'SYMPTOMS': the words 'ANXIETY' and 'DEPRESSION' have become so commonplace in our culture that they have largely lost clarity of meaning. What each person EXPERIENCES is different and largely UNIQUE (although there are always 'universals' inasmuch as we are all human).

Symptom is a term that belongs largely in the MEDICAL model and way of thinking: an INDICATION that there is 'something wrong' in the way our 'SYSTEMS' are working. (Western) MEDICINE will tend to either treat the symptom (painkillers, for example) or try to find the ROOT CAUSE of the symptom (tests, exams, scans, etc.) and treat the CONDITION (while striving to 'manage' or minimise the symptoms).

In PSYCHOLOGICAL terms, the approach is more complex. There may be some OVERLAP with MEDICINE (and any PHYSICAL symptoms always need to be thoroughly medically investigated - in case it may have a physiological cause, before it can be assumed to have a purely psychological origin). But, although we ACKNOWLEDGE - and work with - the INTERPLAY between BODY and MIND (both ways), PSYCHOTHERAPY is mostly concerned with the PSYCHE (which is not the same as the brain).

Our CULTURE of fast answers and quick fixes has popularised a plethora of terms: 'panick attacks', 'OCD', 'overthinking', 'stress', 'anger issues', 'control issues', 'suicidality', 'personality disorders', 'addiction', 'dependency', 'comfort zones', 'trauma', 'impostor syndrome', 'victim mentality', etc. Much as these can be useful as DESCRIPTIVE terms, their adoption in the service of (self)DIAGNOSES is rife with DANGER: (unprofessional) LABELLING creates an illusion of identification without providing any UNDERSTANDING of the INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCE alluded to (their origins, subtleties, consequences, modifications, etc...). The other major PITFALL in this way of thinking is to BUY INTO the MYTH that there is such a thing as a NORMAL human being, and - worse still - that such a STANDARD is ALWAYS 'happy', sociable, 'highly functioning', successful, (self)confident, 'capable', unflappable, resilient, 'healthy', etc... The notorious photoshoped facebook profile picture of idealised perfection.. This MYTH is dangerously DEVOID of COMPLEXITY, and IN DENIAL of REALITY. More of a sign of how sick our culture may be, than a measure to be misguidedly adopted.

Therapists are not doctors who will PRESCRIBE 'CURES'. Although recent trends in Psychology have emphacised a more solution-focused PRESCRIPTIVE approach, traditional Psychotherapy tends to be more PERSON-CENTRED and to espouse more philosophical/humanistic rather than concrete values and approaches.

AFFECTS - feelings, emotions, and states of mind

Feeling 'LOW' or SAD, TIRED or SHOCKED, ANGRY or AGGRESSIVE may well be a very APPROPRIATE (and therefore NOT PATHOLOGICAL) RESPONSE to particular situations or experiences. LOSS of motivation (or libido, or enthusiasm, or energy) may not be a SIGN of 'depression' but that something needs to be REASSESSED in our lives and world. Feeling ANXIOUS before a job interview, or an exam, or in the face of a big decision is a NECESSARY condition for us to be able to take stock of the challenges inherent in the situation and to perform well in the tasks at hand. Feelings/emotions (or AFFECTS) and states of mind are always moving/changing. Like the weather, they come in all shapes and sizes, they come and go, in all sorts of - predictable and unpredictable - ways, some are familiar, but some catch us by surprise, some last for what it feels like a long time, others shift away so quickly we can hardly notice or comprehend. But they do not tend to be PERMANENT.

They may, however, like a broken record, get STUCK in PATTERNS.  Fear may cease to be an appropriate response (to real or perceived threats) and become a more or less permanent (neurotic) state of mind... Distress, Dread, Terror, Horror, may become disproportionate (phobic). Worries may no longer be natural, but become obsessive. Tiredness may become un-shifting fatigue. Sadness may feel endemic. Disappointment - in the face of obstacles, adversity, challenges - may become a state of disillusionment. Frustration may turn into resentment and cynicism. Anger may escalate into Wrath and lead to Violence, Aggression into regrettable Destructiveness.

To cope with such escalations, we develop COMPROMISES ('DEFENCES'): In the face of fears, caution may turn extreme and start to get in the way of living a reasonably fulfilling and engaged life. Feeling unable to handle certain challenges, we may turn to artificial 'crutches', and start 'self-medicating' (with alcohol, drugs, or a dependency on other rituals and beliefs, activities or people), we may swing the other way, and buy into an inflated sense of our own capacities, embracing bravado (instead of courage), grandiosity (instead of a realistic assessment of strengths and weaknesses), and adopt reckless behaviours (rather than taking stock of risks and opportunities). To compensate for powerlessness and feeling not in control of certain things (situations, outcomes, people, etc.), we may become 'controlling' (of others, and of ourselves, our body and routines, our feeding and toilet habits, of our desires - for objects, clothes, money, success, power - and sex). In the face of UNBEARABLE ANGER and/or GUILT we may TURN AGAINST OURSELVES - and find relief only in things, acts, and people that HARM us in some way.

LIFE EXPERIENCE, in all its diversity, is a RICH RANGE of POTENTIALS. Like singers, actors, and other artists, to more we EXTEND our RANGE, the more we can ENJOY a full SPECTRUM, and GROW. 

Attachments, LOSSES and CHANGES

Life is a constant series of changes and losses - which ends in death (which does not mean that our lives are lost.  The point of life is not to live for ever, but to experience). LIFE is not the opposite of DEATH, but what happens between BIRTH and DEATH. Being ALIVE is always a precarious state of TRANSITIONS.

Adjusting to and dealing with CHANGES and LOSSES is per force challenging. Bereavement is a profound experience and Grieving a complex (and largely individual) process. Breaking up (as the song goes) 'is hard to do'. Relationships are 'not easy'. We are hardwired (mostly) to AVOID PAIN, and 'once bitten' really does make us 'twice shy'. Letting go is easier said than done, and missing something or someone we have lost is neither a fault nor a disease. On the contrary: 'THE ONLY WAY OUT is THROUGH'. FACING difficulties (not easy) is - PARADOXICALLY - the best/only way not to get STUCK in REPEATING them again and again (in other guises).