Symptoms feel terrible, but they are a gift.

We don’t ask for it (nor should we), but they knock on our doors. Psychological and emotional suffering such as anxiety, fears, depression, flashbacks, rumination,  compulsions, and voice hearing tell us something is happening to us. They are the sirens that tell us there’s a fire inside.

The signal is not the problem. The fire is.

For example, a woman who has been depressed for three years says that her problem is chronic low mood and lack of motivation. When in fact her symptoms of depression are a signal reflecting back to her a real problem of being in a domestic violent relationship.

Or a man in his forties who has been anxious all of his adult life. He was beginning to think that this was what normal modern day living was meant to be, only to find out once he began to listen to his symptoms, he realised that this was part of an unaddressed traumatic experience of being molested as a child by his uncle that he had burdened in him due to fear and shame. All these years, he had done his best not to talk about it, as he didn’t want to bring shame to his family members (including his Uncle).

Physical illness is easier to imagine than the metaphorical world of our emotions. Think of a person afflicted with leprosy. Renowned British surgeon Dr Paul Brand, who spent his life working in this area was the first to observe that leprosy did not cause the rotting away of tissues, but that it was the loss of the sensation of pain which made sufferers susceptible to injury. In other words,  the problem with  leprosy is the absence of the ability to feel pain. (See his book with co-author Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain).

Perhaps what we first need to do is to take a stance of what Thomas Moore calls “Honoring symptoms as the voice of the soul.”

Even though the meaning of the word soul is illusive, we all know what it means when we say to lead a soulful life, compared to a soul-less life. Tending to soul means to lead a life that we are truthful. When we are truthful to our selves, we are truthful to others. When we are true to ourselves, we find God. Truthfulness enlivens.

Resist our natural tendency to eliminate psychological symptoms as the main problem. First, listen to what it’s telling us. Is there a fire?

In the words of Stephen Gilligan, symptoms are terrible gifts.

Put out the fire first, not the signal.

Happy World Mental Day to everyone!

Daryl Chow, Ph.D.

10th Oct 2016.