Cure the problem or the symptoms? It is the Hamletian dilemma that we will all encounter sooner rather than later in life. The decision we make can affect our well-being and have serious repercussions on our long-term health.
Unfortunately, most people focus on treating the symptoms, not the cause. If they have a headache or heartburn, they take something to ease it, without wondering what the source might be. In that way, it is not strange that they end up drowning in a sea of medications while ignoring the causes that are generating their conditions. Worst of all, they could end up taking a lot of medications and still not feel good at all.
Treating the symptoms, not the problem, especially when it comes to mental health, implies condemning yourself to a vicious cycle in which the maladaptive behaviors that have caused the discomfort continue to recur, further aggravating the symptoms and triggering new discomforts. Of course, that does not mean that in certain cases it is not necessary to treat the symptoms and resort to medications, but the ideal is to find its cause and work at a deeper and holistic level to eradicate it.
The teachings of holistic treatment applied in the ancient world
Treating symptoms by forgetting about the problem has not always been the norm. One of the best-known health centers in the ancient world and one of the first to treat mental disorders was Asclepeion in Pergamum, which dates back to the 4th century BC. In fact, Galen was trained in that hospital.
However, his treatments were not what we are used to. The complex was more like a modern spa because it had fountains, gyms and baths, surrounded by woods and gardens. It even had an odeon where concerts were held since also music was an important therapy for the ancients, a theater where representations were made for therapeutic purposes (something similar to modern psychodrama) and a library available to patients so that they could feed their intellect.
That hospital practiced a kind of triage. The sick were examined and classified at the Great Gate. They then received a comprehensive treatment ranging from fasting to mud baths, dream interpretation therapy, massages, ointments, herbs, music, dance, walks in the gardens, and induction of sleep and rest. Many times, to find the cause, was used a method called incubatio, which consisted of analyzing dreams.
In fact, if we take into account that many of our dreams reflect our daily or deeper worries and fears, analyzing them can give us clues about our emotional state and its expression in the body, although this dualistic distinction would not have place in a holistic medicine.
The 3 modern obstacles to detect the origin and cure the cause of disorders and diseases
Symptoms, such as anxiety, fatigue, muscle aches, or memory problems are often an indicator that something is wrong. They signal to us that our balance has been broken. These symptoms are like the warning lights on cars, they serve to indicate that something is wrong. In the same way that we do not ignore the signal from our car, but take it to the mechanic to find out what is happening, we should not ignore our symptoms. Yet that is precisely what many people do on a daily basis when they turn to drugs, alcohol, or binge eating to ease their discomfort.
Unfortunately, conventional medicine somewhat encourages that view. It does this every time it prescribes a drug without looking for the cause of the problem, just to alleviate the symptom. There are not many doctors who, when patients show up with epigastric complaints, for example, ask about their mental health.
In fact, in modern society there are three major obstacles – both on a scientific and personal level – that lead us to treat the symptoms, not the cause:
1. Absence of a holistic vision. As the theoretical and procedural baggage of each science has expanded, there has been an ever greater compartmentalization. In the case of the sciences related to the human being, that implies seeing it as a set of parts or pieces that must be fixed when they break or malfunction. Few professionals see the whole in its integrity and complexity. Also, many people do not understand that even their thoughts and emotions can affect their physical health or that their lifestyle can affect their psychological health.
2. Chronic lack of time. In a world that spins at breakneck speed, time is an increasingly scarce commodity. If doctors do not have enough time in their consultations, they will not be able to deepen their patients, so they will only focus on treating their symptoms. In the same way, if we do not spend time making introspection and trying to find the psychological causes of our discomfort, we will limit ourselves to complaining about how badly we are doing or how unhappy we are without asking ourselves what we can do to improve our condition. Chronic lack of time, therefore, leads us to seek simplistic solutions.
3. Search for easy solutions. Also the consumer society sets a trap for our health: make us believe that we can meet our needs quickly, with the least effort. However, when it comes to health, there are no shortcuts or easy paths. Caring for, protecting or restoring our physical and psychological health is a commitment that we must renew every day. It also implies an act of reflection that leads us to analyze our lifestyle, behaviors and thoughts, followed by a proactive attitude to change what needs to be changed. For this reason, many people prefer to resort to easier and faster “solutions”. The problem is that in many cases these are not true solutions but patches that only serve to mask the cause.
The 5 pillars of healing to treat the problem, not the symptoms
Any problem that we suffer, whether it is predominantly physical or psychological, would demand a holistic approach that integrates all our facets:
1. Physics. It is just as wrong to ignore psychological symptoms as well as physical ones. In fact, we must learn to connect more with our body. Learn to listen to it to understand what it needs at all times and not alter its homeostasis. When we listen to our body we can know what foods are good for it and what physical activity regenerates it. We will know when we need to rest and when we can push ourselves to the limit.
Of course, listening to our bodies sometimes means also using medications to treat certain conditions. Sometimes our body needs extra help, and ignoring that call could only aggravate the disease.
2. Psychological. Our thoughts and emotions have a huge impact on our physical and psychological well-being. If we spend all day trapped in our worries and subjecting ourselves to continuous stress, it is not surprising that this state ends up taking its toll. Psychological problems can not only aggravate different physical illnesses but also act as their triggers.
Researchers from Aalto University found the enormous impact of different emotions on our body. They saw that contained anger, for example, is associated with a double risk of suffering a heart attack, while stress triggers inflammatory processes that are at the basis of diseases such as cancer.
3. Behavioral. It is useless knowing what benefits us if we do not put it into practice. Our behaviors are, ultimately, those that can protect our well-being or, on the contrary, give it the coup de grace. The lifestyle we lead and the decisions we make every day will influence our health.
It is important to be aware that each decision brings us closer or further away from well-being, having an impact on our health that can become cumulative. With that idea in mind, we can make salutogenic decisions that tip the balance in our favor.
4. Spiritual. Our beliefs also influence our well-being. Beliefs can generate a great sense of peace and tranquility, comforting us and helping us better cope with adversity, but they can also be a double-edged sword that plunges us into hopelessness or cynicism. Developing our spiritual side can help us find a meaning in our life that makes us feel better.
In that sense, a systematic review of hundreds of studies concluded that “People who are more spiritual have better mental health and adapt more quickly to health problems compared to those who are less spiritual. These possible benefits to mental health and well-being have physiological consequences that impact physical health, affect the risk of disease, and influence response to treatment”.
5. Social. It is of little use to follow a healthy lifestyle and do mental cleansing often if we are surrounded by a toxic environment. Interpersonal relationships can be our greatest source of happiness or, on the contrary, generate discomfort, problems and conflicts. Therefore, we must also make sure that we surround ourselves with people who bring into our lives everything we want to promote.
Psychologists at Ohio State University, for example, found that maintaining a hostile relationship marked by arguments can delay the healing of wounds. Another study carried out at the State University of New York found that a relationship that makes us unhappy ends up causing symptoms of depression, problems with alcohol and many other physical symptoms.
By analyzing these five areas, it is possible to find the cause and understand the different factors involved in diseases and disorders, so that, by working on the origin, we can eliminate all the symptoms at the same time, promoting authentic well-being. Of course, applying this approach takes more time and effort, but it often creates a transformative change that underpins our long-term holistic health, so it’s worth it.
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