The Illness is the Cure: The Forgotten Wisdom of Our Psychological Symptoms

I always liked the saying “The illness is the cure”. Why? Because in the area of mental health, it alerts us to something profoundly insightful about the nature of the psychological and emotional problems most people struggle with.

Whether we feel depressed, have panic attacks, or generally feel weak, bad, or inadequate, these kinds of problematic states and ways of suffering are rarely ever simply problems to be removed or eradicated. They are NOT the illness, but like a fever or a cough, a symptom that alerts us to something about our life or our approach to life that is off-kilter, wrong, or in need of change.

Like the red lamps on the dashboard of a car, they alert us to the problem, but are not themselves the problem.

The Fallacy of Treating the Symptom as the Cause:

There is a real fallacy here that many people fall into if they do not realize this nature of their psychological distress.

If they simply think of their anxiety or their depression as the problem, then they might try to medicate the symptom to the exclusion of finding out why the symptom is really there.

In some sense this approach would be tantamount to attempting to solve a car issue by smashing the red light on the dashboard.

However, when you realize that the psyche uses the symptom of depression or anxiety to alert us to the fact that it is ill or that something in our life needs to change, our symptom becomes more of a friend than a foe. It now serves as a calling to resolve an issue which we may have been avoiding or which has stumped us in some way.

As in the saying “the illness is the cure” it serves merely as the first step toward the cure, and as such it is in fact the first step toward a transformation and reorganization that needs to occur for balance and health to be restored.

Way too often, we short-circuit this natural healing process because we get frightened by the calling and can’t see the road ahead. We mistake the symptom for the cause, and the burgeoning cure for the illness itself.

Discovering the Truth of Our Symptoms:

There is a depth of understanding that has gotten lost in our current search for quick fixes and immediate happiness, but was always there in the minds of the founders of the craft we now call psychotherapy.

A psychiatrist like Carl Jung, for example, beautifully wrote about heeding our symptoms as a calling:

“Depression”, he said, “is like a woman in black. If she turns up, don’t shoo her away. Invite her in, offer her a seat, treat her like a guest and listen to what she wants to say.”

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

Even poets have alerted us to the fact that our distress is merely a signpost toward making necessary changes. As Rainer Marie Rilke writes:

“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? … If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke

Sigmund Freud, too, reminded us of the danger of not listening to our symptoms, for as he rightly warns us:

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways”

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

The Calling of Symptoms is to “Know Thyself”:

So much gets lost when we don’t heed the advice to listen to our symptoms and pursue them as the first step toward a cure.

Depression, anxiety, badness, and upset, cures itself once its truth is understood and its emotional conflicts disentangled.

The calling of mental illness is to “know thyself”.

The calling is not for a dimming of your awareness through medication, quick fixes, or a rush to premature action, but for an expansion of your consciousness, so you can reap the benefits of your psyche’s own wisdom, and find out more about what is meaningful and central to you at your core.

Illness is not a destination, but a way-station, and those who dare to unlock its message will be amply rewarded and transformed in the process.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people work through their symptoms of anxiety and depression to achieve a transformation to a better, lighter, and more centered self. Visit my website for more information. 

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  1. Thank you, Moel. . .

    In the midst of a packed day, your post caught my attention and I was called to read it – all the way through.
    It warms my heart to read that you don’t try to get rid of the symptoms, but rather utilize the symptoms to find the real cause at the core.
    And that you know that symptoms are a call to “know thyself,” a message to “unlock,” an invitation to true change – which is an emotional experience – a calling to transformation . . .

    My work – my heart and soul – reflect the same commitment. The very first page of my website says it in a sentence: “Heal your inner wounds fully and to the root.”

    In a field (psychotherapy) – as well as a country and world — that has moved more and more toward quick fixes and bandaids . . . In a field that has sadly moved more and more toward being an industry rather than a calling . . . It is always deeply meaningful to me to find another therapist who stands firmly grounded in the calling and the real healing to the root.

    Perhaps we are kindred spirits?

    Thanks again and many blessings, Moel.
    Judith Barr

    • Well it is news to me that depression will just go away once you acknowledge it. So chemical and physiological changes will just melt away? one you understand they are symptoms of depression , anxiety, obsessive compulsive neurosis are not really an illness ?

      I guess in the days of Freud the brutal treatments available was a way of getting to know yourself and acknowledge your illness. I suppose suicidal ideation will also just dissipate.

      Well that does not sit well with my experience of mental health in the general population . Sounds very good but then so did early ECT.

      Joseph Grennell
      Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist

      • Joseph,
        There are some philosophical assumptions here that I don’t agree with. #1: Chemical and physiological changes are not static. The brain is always changing in response to the environment, and the environment the person perceives and experiences is always changing in response to the brain. The two are dynamically linked, so yes, insight through therapy CAN change the brain. #2: Suicidal ideation is not just your brain doing physiological things, but is simultaneously a psychological coping mechanism. With these two assumptions clarified and detached from a static view of psychological distress as a brain disorder, there is nothing that remarkable about any of the claims I make in the article. Depression, suicidal ideation, and so on, are symptoms which are both environmentally created and impacted, as well as neurochemically maintained. My main point in the article is that the real therapy should not be directed at depression itself or at the suicidal ideation itself, but to the underlying issues which are generating these phenomena. This DOES involve a process of discovering what it is that is really making you feel stuck or really making you want to escape, and freeing up internal resources and possibilities that been blocked for some reason. Your comment: “well it is news to me that depression will just go away once you acknowledge it” is a rather glib interpretation of therapeutic insight. Therapy at its best involves insights that are not just intellectual, but involve the entire person, including their emotions and felt sense of themselves, and physiological changes in the body and the brain.

        • Well yes I do of course appreciate what you are say in context. My own experience is as a Research Psychologist and Specialise in Epilepsy and Neurology ans Physiology of the brain.

          Using fMRIs I have been able to identify structural and other neurological /neurochemical changes in the brains of people with a Major Depression.

          Now I can only base my finding on what is actually going on in the brain of people with a wide variety of neurological disorders and mental health issues. I myself use CBT, Solution Focused Therapy and ABA Therapy which I am well trained in.

          My own experience is to alleviate the very severe symptoms and stop my patients from committing suicide . In this I have been very successful. The same applies to a wide range of mental health problems that respond well to medical interventions.

          I myself have suffered 2 bouts of Severe Clinical Depression and it was SSRI medication that kicked in after 4 weeks that kept me alive.

          Perhaps my main aim as a practitioner is to get people as well as possible as soon as possible. They can can return to work and their loved ones are relieved of the severe stress.

          Joseph Grennell
          Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist

  2. An excellent piece, especially for this day and age. As scary as the message may seem to some, I think it’s very comforting. Depression, anxiety, even panic, are ways our unconscious mind alerts us to something being amiss.

    On the other hand, there are times when helping ease someone’s symptoms engenders trust and allows them to be able to plumb their depths.

    You might enjoy some of the articles on my site: Despite the name, it offers free support, comfort and resources for all life issues and transitions, not just the cosmic hazing of divorce.

    All the best.

  3. Here you go: Illness is the cure. No rationalizations, No leading to why? But purely, “the Illness is the cure” is profound and exact in certain situations. Example: The case of a drug addicted patient who is leading a life to death or prison or destroying society with his behavior. The person develops some form of psychosis. This leads to a locked facility, then rehab. After he is diminished in capacity and cannot function independently. He eventually progresses to be able to function at home with care or even a group home with his illness. He is no longer in main stream of society, so the past behaviors become extinguished due to a new life style. He is functioning and becoming the best he can be in a new life setting. No long in the illegal drugs. A new life style is developed with a semi-independent lifestyle that is more functional and more satisfying than his previous self destructive behavior. Who is to say that if he didn’t develop psychosis he would even be alive or harm herself or others with his past destructive behaviors. Now he has a chance at a better adapted life. Thus Illness is the cure.

  4. Overall I like the article but I am not particularly in agreement with the title. Cancer is an illness but one can hardly cure that cancer with more cancer. I do agree that in most matters to do with mental or physical health we should become more aware that within those illnesses possibly lie the solution to their cure. For many this can be like a “wake up” call for some action that has long been neglected. We should follow the ancient way of thought leading to “know thyself”.