Countering And Suppressing Mental Health Symptoms Vs. Truly Fixing The Root Of The Problem
Whatever mental health or life functioning issues you're dealing with, like anxiety, depression, or procrastination, one core recovery concept to keep in mind is whether any particular technique or approach is just helping you manage, or counteract, the surface symptoms or if it can help you reduce or eliminate the core problem once and for all.
To use two extreme examples, having a few drinks may calm you down at a party, but isn't doing anything to address why you're jittery in the first place. On the other hand, healing the low-grade childhood trauma that contributes to your social anxiety may permanently lower it.
Sometimes people unintentionally learn a bunch of tools that are just for symptom reduction, then are disappointed when those measures don't alleviate their issues over the long run. Sometimes they'll go out and learn more symptom-countering approaches, and get even more frustrated when nothing seems to make a difference long term.
However, it's not as simple as saying, "Tools that merely counter symptoms are worthless band-aids. You should only focus on approaches that can fix you permanently." Both have their time and place. If you're worried about a job interview you're driving to, you can't pause time and spend months exploring the fear of success that fuels your nerves. But some breathing exercises should take the edge off. The goal of this article is to get you thinking about this topic, and to be more aware of how any one treatment method fits into your larger plan.
Techniques and approaches that are mainly for countering symptoms
As I'll explain in a moment, depending on how they're employed certain methods can be used both for shallow symptom suppression and to cure a core issue. Here's a list of approaches that can certainly have more of a symptom-reduction focus:
To be used in the moment
- Distracting yourself
- Calming breathing techniques
- Soothing visualizations
- Muscle relaxation techniques
- Grounding techniques
- Doing some immediate exercise to burn off your anxious energy or pull yourself out a flat, lethargic frame of mind
- Mindfully waiting for an upsetting emotion to pass
- Talking to someone to get some support in the moment
- Drinking or smoking pot to calm down
- Taking a faster-acting anxiety medication like Xanax or Ativan
To be used longer-term
- Getting regular exercise
- Getting enough sleep each night
- Eating a healthy diet
- Getting enough sunlight or vitamin D
- Not drinking too much caffeine
- Starting a meditation practice
- Writing in a gratitude journal every day
- Taking time to relax and unwind each evening
- Cutting out obvious sources of stress in your life, like a draining commute
- Taking a longer-term antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication
- Trying to be slightly buzzed or stoned all the time so your anxiety never has a chance to appear
As you can see, many of these approaches aren't horrible. It's healthy for all kinds of reasons to exercise several times a week or eat a good diet. These lifestyle changes can definitely shift your headspace in a more positive direction over time. In the end though, they might not be doing anything to fix the core baggage that's souring your mood in the first place. Though the key word is might. I'll go more into how the line between these two categories is often fuzzy.
Approaches that can sometimes truly cure mental health problems
This isn't meant to be a complete list, but here are some broad approaches that aim to fix conditions like depression, anxiety, or excessive anger at their roots:
- Approaches that focus on digging up and processing the unresolved traumatic events that started and continue to fan the flames of present day struggles
- Approaches that focus on unearthing and dealing with any unconscious motivations for continuing symptoms that seem irrational and self-destructive on a surface level
- Methods that help you face your fears in real life, so you can learn firsthand they're not as bad as you imagine
- Methods that help you revise your core beliefs and thinking habits in regards to the areas you have trouble with
- Learning missing skills that are tied into the problem, e.g., improving your social skills so you can meet people, and overcome your feelings of loneliness.
Some thoughts on how both symptom-countering and long-term healing approaches can be useful
In some cases stringing together a bunch of symptom-reducing tools can address the core problem
Not all mental health challenges are caused by complicated, buried, unaddressed childhood wounds. Someone may have a flare up of anxiety and low motivation simply because they're going through a busy, stressful period at work. A bunch of relaxation techniques and healthy, mood boosting lifestyle changes may be all they need to cope with the rough patch and get enough relief.
In some cases stringing together several symptom-countering measures can make you feel way better, even if the core issue doesn't budge
Even if someone's anxiety, depression, or anger is related to decades-old baggage, if their symptoms are mild or moderate a mix of counteractive tools may get them back to feeling normal. Yeah, they're just softening the outer symptoms, not resolving the childhood scars that generate them, but what's more important is they can function day to day. The fact is many people won't try to heal their deeper baggage unless their symptoms are severe enough that counteractive approaches don't work, and they have no other choice but to dive into their past.
For some mental health issues managing the symptoms is all you can do
For example, Bipolar Disorder is an incurable inherited condition. The best you can do is keep the mood swings it causes from getting too out of hand with medication and self-help methods. You can keep the worst of it at bay and still live a meaningful life, but it's not going anywhere.
Other more-severe mental health disorders are technically treatable, but it may take a lot of work, and for most people that won't realistically happen without years of therapy. In the short or medium-term, managing the symptoms is the best anyone can hope for, and it can still make a huge difference in how they feel one hour to the next. Not many people would turn down that chance to feel better, out of some abstract desire to only use methods that can affect permanent healing.
Some situations may always causes some uncomfortable emotions that have to be managed, even if we have no root baggage around them
For example, public speaking, dating, the death of a loved one, or getting through a really stressful patch in your life. Deeper issues can make these things more distressing, but even if someone has no old scars around them, they're still difficult. Knowing some ways to reduce the intensity of the emotional symptoms makes them much easier to cope with.
Symptom-suppressing tools are usually quicker to learn and apply
Exploring and resolving the baggage that sustains your issues isn't always a difficult, drawn out process, but it often does take time. On the other hand, it may only take fifteen minutes to learn and get the hang of a relaxation technique. Some measures, like taking an anti-anxiety pill, don't have any learning curve at all. Some symptom-countering methods, like exercising several times a week, may take a few months to pay off, but that's still quicker than longer-term therapy.
It makes sense to learn some fast, simple symptom-reducing tools first. They may work well enough on their own. Even if they don't, they can provide at least some relief while you let the bigger picture approaches take effect.
Someone may need a foundation of symptom-countering tools before they can do certain kinds of core healing work
Again, it's not always painful, but it can be difficult and upsetting to explore and heal your core baggage, especially if it involves serious trauma. The relaxation techniques that can help you calm down when you're freaked out at work can also give you the ability to examine and sit with painful emotions and events from your past, rather than get overwhelmed by them. Similarly, some people's symptoms are so severe that they can't do any meaningful healing work until some medication pulls them out of a tailspin. It isn't that they'll have to be on it forever, but they need it short-term to be stable-ish enough to apply other approaches.
Whether an approach is seen as curative or counteractive depends on what theory or orientation the problem is being viewed through
For example, one theory may say that some people are genetically wired to have anxious or depressed brain chemistry. Taking SSRI antidepressants long-term would be seen as tackling the root cause. Another theory may say, "Sure, some people are more predisposed to becoming anxious or depressed, but there also has to be some childhood adversity that triggers it. If you can resolve that core trauma they'll feel better. Muting their emotions with pills isn't dealing with the heart of it all."
Here's another example: From an Exposure Therapy perspective if someone's afraid of spiders they've acquired a false belief that they're dangerous. They need to face that fear and get firsthand, visceral, real world experience that your average house spider is nothing to be worried about. As they slowly face their fear they replace the faulty old belief with a more accurate one.
A more trauma-focused theory may claim, "If someone is extremely scared of spiders it's due to an unresolved traumatic experience they had with one. There's a neural network in their brain that holds that belief, along with the associated fear. They have to process that original trauma to dissolve the fear. If they try to face their fears with Exposure Therapy they're creating a new, competing neural network, not overwriting the original one. Many times the new network may win out, and they won't feel jittery around a spider when they see one, but not in every case. At times the old network will come out on top, and the old fear will seem to come back."
A third theory, related to unconscious motivations, might say, "Everyone's different, but in some cases a fear of spiders may serve a hidden purpose. For example, maybe they're afraid of being abandoned, and an unspoken part of them believes needing people to constantly rescue them from spiders, among other things, helps keep everyone connected to them. You won't get anywhere unless you unearth and address the true motivation for the issue." (Coherence Therapy is a counselling method that approaches clients' problems from this angle. Reading about it is also where I first heard about the concept of counteracting symptoms vs. truly erasing them.)
It also comes down to why any one person has the issues they do
Everyone's different. Five people may have the same outer mental health struggle, but each could have unique things going on under the hood. For one person with a phobia, facing their fears may truly cure it. For another it helps them get to a point where they can begrudgingly tolerate it, but the core fear is still there. And in the end it comes down to results. Your average person doesn't care what's driving their issues on a theoretical level. They'll be happy with whatever approaches end up giving them some reprieve, whether that's years of poking around their childhood or learning a bunch of soothing meditations.
Some approaches can counter symptoms in the moment and also help resolve them longer term
For example, the technique of sitting with anxiety, watching it without an agenda, and letting it pass, rather than fighting it. In the short-term this can help anxiety dissipate when it appears. Bigger picture, this tool may be taught as part of a larger philosophy based around learning not to be scared of your anxiety or rearranging your life in order to avoid it. Someone may struggle with their nerves because they're caught in a feedback loop where they fear their nervousness, which makes it stronger. By learning to sit with it, and seeing it's uncomfortable but not a catastrophe, their attitude toward it may change. Once they no longer fear their fear, it loses its power over them.
Again, this may be what's going on under the surface of one person's anxiety, and the "sit with it" technique acts as both a short-term coping mechanism and long-term solution. For someone else, their anxiety may be tied to trauma, and changing their attitude to it may lower the volume, but their mood won't permanently get better until they do dedicated trauma therapy.