Let’s Talk About It: Talking your way out of anxiety, stress, and other maladies.

Have you ever wondered why talking about your problems helps?

Allegedly, Sigmund Freud came up with the concept of “Talking Cure” when a patient asked him to shut up and allow him to talk about what afflicted him. “Let me talk!”, he said. It seems like the mere act of talking would bring about some alleviation. But, what grants such relief? The Talking Cure is not about listening or even being listened to, but about talking. -Get-rid-of-a-symptom-by-talking-, no pills, no lobotomy; just words. Interesting notion, indeed.

What happens when we talk? Many disciplines have a say about this. But, in the context of psychotherapy, it is believed that by the act of talking, one weaves meaning and organizes emotions and thoughts, uncovering underlying issues. We are talking beings, who classify the world by language. So, by putting things into words, one can understand significations, shift perspectives, or simply vent, as in an audible monologue. To name is not idle; it entails an order, a makeup which -per se- sheds light to a rather obscure matter.

Since the beginning of time, the spoken word has been regarded as sacred. From blessings to curses, it has always been a tool, a medium, a channel of thoughts imbuing in the midst of feelings. Poets and philosophers could utter and master it, other artists transformed or sublimed it. Words have always connected us, even in the form of silence.

The Talking Cure certainly has its benefits; it helps with anxiety, stress, obsessions, interpersonal issues, pain, and pretty much any other malady. At some point, it can all be reduced to a psychological problem (recalcitrant reductionism, but feasible). Moreover, arguing against psychotherapy is an oxymoron because to criticize it can be viewed as a symptom of defensiveness or resistance that needs to be analyzed. As a speech act, within the context of the Talking Cure, words become true with just their utterance.

Beyond the theoretical validity of the Talking Cure -unproved but not untested-, psychotherapy is the most commonly used coping strategy for a vast range of conditions and maladaptive behaviors of multiple colors and hues. It provides a scholarly dialogue with an expert interlocutor, purportedly above the discord of everyday discourse; no other has the non-judgmental stance of a therapist. In a somewhat enigmatic yet methodic process, issues can be resolved. Therapy is a true encounter between two human beings heralding a needed change — that anticipated and circumscribed common goal-. A reciprocal relationship like any other, where you get what you put in.

Some see it as a tool to self-discovery, an intimate exploration, or even a mystical revelation by a symptom reader. Some therapies offer a more in depth journey, searching for dark causes or yawning genealogies. It is often questioned if such therapies of the depths are more serious or efficient than others, more focused on the here and now. The word “deep” is certainly strong and has a long-standing history. We usually regard the adjective “deep” as highly valuable. Examples abound: deep foundations, deep feelings, deep wounds, etc. There is a direct relationship between depth and value; the more hidden, the more valuable (this could be the very definition of treasure). The surface seems misleading but hints us, like Plato’s allegory of the cavern. The symptom becomes an illusion. Therefore, we need to dig to unmask and discover the real thing.

In the same vein, the Talking Cure can be seen as a process to unearth the depths of our unconscious, that mysterious core material. Leonardo Da Vinci made a distinction between painting and sculpting. He asserted a painter works “per via di porre”, adding something to the canvas whereas the sculptor operates “per via di levare”, by a process of removing something to unveil its true form. Freud used that metaphor (which some attribute to Michelangelo) to exemplify the work of the Talking Cure; it is not about adding anything new — an advice or a suggestion — but to subtract to expose the origin of symptoms.

Therapy is a research process, inquisitive and investigative. It goes hand in hand with education, as in the Ancient Greek traditional way; education and reason are the needed tools against any human suffering. Therapy has to do with wisdom but also with care, as expressed in Leibniz’ renewed motto “caritas sapientis,” (the love of the wise person). The therapist knows but also cares, a powerful combination.

Not every talking therapy requires a regressive journey to the past or to dig into the profundities of the mind. Therapy can also focus on the surface -the behavior-, the here and now, and tackle specific current issues. It is hard though not to link them to structural matters and strip all their history away. Still, it can be done.

Whether you understand therapy as a quasi-epic venture to subterranean fantasies or a tool to change behavior, psychological processes need to be understood as counterintuitive and unintelligible. Hence, a professional is needed (after all, if it was that simple, we could do it by ourselves). We hear this quite often from many people “I act as a psychologist,” “I psychoanalyze my friends, or my customers,” yet it is not so simple. Psychology becomes omnipresent. Constantly, people attempt to give interpretations, assess symptoms, reflect on behaviors, or gauge tentative disorders. Mind or word games, we constantly decode, de-construct, and attempt to understand or to see beyond. We take the suspicion that there is something more for granted.

From psychobabble to psychoanalysis, the question of analyzing and understanding ourselves is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious. Guilt, angst, deviations, perversions, impulses, fears, vices, all prompt us to decipher, to interpret, to unravel, and to resolve. We cannot stand the enigma and we crave for knowledge.

Therapy starts with a question. It revolves around a question. It is all about questions. That question, which presents itself as a symptom, becomes a quest. I’m stressed out, I’m depressed or I’m anxious; all sentences share the substance of the same question: Why? The most foundational question, of all. It is not a question if you know the answer. And, we all share a short sighted vision of oneself. “I am stressed out” rapidly re- signifies itself in “why am I so stressed out?” Or “why things affect me in such ways?” Or “why I feel the way I feel?” Under any symptom, there is always a question.

Beyond any other peripheral query, therapy is all about “why” and by turning the focus inward, we can undrape cloaked truths, disguised in allegories. Principally, when is hard to know what’s chicken, what’s egg… Why is the answer. When life seems tepid or you need to figure out who you are and why you are who you are. It is the most rudimentary form of anxiety, with the face of childlike curiosity.

There is another foundational therapeutic question: What do I have to do with it? This question allows responsibility to take over blame. Big, big deal. But, keep in mind, -having-to-do-with-it- does not equal guilt. Guilt pulls you down whereas responsibility empowers you. It is crucial to understand how you contribute to a certain unhealthy pattern, so it can be dismantled.

Within the haven of therapy, supported and reinforced self-disclosure becomes possible. Vertical or horizontal, in the form of spoken or bodily language, the talking therapy is a meta-language, a discourse about a discourse. In such haven, questions multiply, unceasingly but prolifically. And, so do observations, interpretations, feelings, interactions, and understanding. Soon enough, an underlying truth is to be revealed, an interpretation rings true, you can register some valuable feedback. Someone is honing in on your blind spot! You become validated by empathy and vested by accountability, which frees you from guilt, which in turn, frees you from angst. Everyone oohs and aahs! Unexpectedly, even though it has always been the goal, the symptom is gone. That core vacuum in your diaphragm has been named, appointed, organized, cracked, and reframed. It has been listened to, read, and understood, all by means of being spoken. Few things have more power than feeling completely understood. To understand is to quell fear and entails the ability to achieve congruence between behaviors and intentions. Keep in mind, the higher the self-understanding, the lower the anxiety.

The agenda of psychotherapy groans with its own weight. Consider it an emotional relationship or an intellectual guide, emotion activation or objective detachment, transference or empathy, directive advice or untarnished reserve. With arrogance or altruism, a therapist always transits that Talmudic maxim, “to redeem one person is to save the whole world.” Like for the starfish thrower, one patient’s healing can make much of a difference. It certainly makes a difference to that one!