An hour doesn’t go by as we watch our favorite shows on TV before an advertisement for a medication is shown. New medicines for all kinds of ailments appear showing happy people enjoying active lives kayaking, spending time with the grandkids, eating their favorite foods, and getting a good night’s sleep. Many millions of dollars are invested in research and development to invent these medications and untold millions in commercial advertisements and other forms of marketing. The goal of making billions of dollars in profits for the pharmaceutical industry world-wide is often realized.

It’s true that many people enjoy more fulfilling and longer lives due to medicines that ward off disease, help regulate cardiac, digestive and immune systems, protect organs, reduce inflammation and allergic reactions, slow down degenerative diseases, and fight infection. Doctors are trained to diagnose and treat our medical issues and then write a prescription to mitigate the ailment. If we have acid reflux – there is a pill for that. Migraines – there are medicines for that. Anxiety and depression – there are plenty of medications for those conditions. Erectile dysfunction – yup, there are pills for that too (especially ‘little blue’ pills). This is great! More people are feeling better about their lives and about themselves than ever before. I have just one question…since doctors are good at identifying a condition, why are they not so good at identifying the cause of all these medical problems? Does anyone even care about what the cause is as long as it can be alleviated by a pill?

For over a hundred years doctors have stated that the two most important factors that can positively affect ones health are a proper diet and exercise. This still rings true today. Over the last hundred years advances in medicine including new medications have played a large role in helping to extend the lives and the quality of life for many people. Ameliorating symptoms has been a central reason many medicines were first made. That brings us back to the question stated above as to what could be causing the symptoms in the first place.  

Sigmund Freud, labeled the father of psychoanalysis, also wondered about what could be the cause of bodily “signs” or symptoms. His work looked at the mechanisms of the psyche not just at a conscious level, but particularly at the unconscious level. According to psychoanalysis, we can think of our conscious and unconscious states to be like an iceberg with our conscious mind the part that’s above the water and the unconscious below the water. As we all know, an iceberg shows only a small part of its mass on the top with the majority of the iceberg underwater.  As was stated by Freud, most of our actions and decisions occur out of our conscious awareness. That may be a little hard to comprehend! Freud believed that a symptom was “the return of the repressed.” There are two ways we can push undesirable thoughts and “wishes” from our mind. We can use suppression in which we consciously attempt to not think about or distract our thinking from a troubling thought or it can be repressed unconsciously. Oftentimes in therapy a client will be talking about a subject when all of a sudden they “forget” where they were going with their story. Where did the thought go? Freud would say that the forgetfulness was a form of resistance to the subject matter that was too painful to look at. Because the client would say they didn’t consciously want to avoid their story, we would then believe that the undesirable thought was unconsciously repressed.

If painful thoughts and feelings are being repressed where do they go and how could they manifest? In psychoanalysis this is when symptoms occur. As stated earlier, many people go to the doctors complaining about symptoms in which no cause can be found. The easy solution is to take a pill and in many cases the symptom will be mitigated. However, we are still left wondering what the cause could be. We all know people who take handfuls of medicines every day and in a lot of cases the medication can be truly lifesaving. But in cases where a biological or organic cause cannot be found, why the symptoms?

Many patients say they want symptoms to go away due to the “suffering” they are forced to endure. According to psychoanalysis a person’s symptom is created by them to give expression to the unconscious “truth” that is trying to get out. The symptom can act as a sign that something deep inside a person’s psyche needs to be expressed, but may be deemed unacceptable to the person. This push-pull of unwanted thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, may need to be repressed, but at the same time, they are seeking expression through symptoms. From a physical and psychological point of view, this can be quite troubling for a patient. By taking a pill to manage a symptom will only mask the real cause of a problem and often times as one symptom is managed, another one will occur.

So what are our symptoms trying to tell us? Why do so many people suffer from anxiety, depression, migraines, acid reflux, Crones disease, high blood pressure, and many other ailments in which a direct cause cannot be found? Maybe it’s time to call a psychoanalyst to explore the root cause of these issues.

*This paper is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical or psychological issues. This paper is also not intended to dissuade the reader from taking their medication. That decision is between you and your doctor. This paper was produced to think a little differently about symptoms you may have without a clear cause that could be explored in therapy with a psychoanalyst.