Symptoms: Conflict at an Unconscious Level

Symptoms tell us about unresolved conflicts and unmet needs.
Symptoms: Conflict at an Unconscious Level
Angela C. Tobias

Written and verified by the psychologist Angela C. Tobias.

Last update: 29 November, 2022

From a humanist perspective, symptoms are messengers of discomfort. Their function is to make our most unconscious conflicts come to light so that we can verbalize them. However, what are the different types of symptoms and how do they relate to our bodies?

In this article, we’ll bring you closer to a more inclusive concept of mental and physical health and look at the more holistic elements of symptoms. In addition, we’ll give you an introduction to how to read these body signals on a daily basis and get to know yourself better. So, are you ready to listen to what your body has to say?

woman with anxiety
Symptoms send messages about how you’re doing.

The concept of symptoms as unresolved conflicts

Understanding symptoms is one of the priorities of current humanist or psychoanalyst therapies. From this theoretical framework, symptoms are understood as an alteration in the body that underlies certain discomfort.

This branch of psychology sees symptoms as indicators of an underlying conflict. Sometimes, they’re subtle, and at others, overt. In fact, nervousness, insomnia, or small rituals can be evidence of an internal conflict. Somehow, they try to communicate with your conscious mind to let you know that there’s something that requires your attention.

Contrary to other behavioral currents based on the relief of symptoms through different direct techniques, this type of orientation investigates their roots. Symptoms are understood as something secondary, as the visible part of a submerged conflict. They’re seen as the starting point for investigating the depth of childhood wounds and relationships.

Symptoms and the unconscious

The psychodynamic current was the first to forge concepts such as the unconscious. It placed it in the foreground in psychotherapy, considering the symptom as an indicator of discomfort. Following Sigmund Freud’s metaphor of the iceberg, the symptom constitutes the visible part of the conflict, while the base and most of the emotional wound is submerged in the unconscious.

A patient might go to therapy with a symptom, such as anxiety, insomnia, or some other bodily ailment. The therapy process guides them to discover the implicit message of that symptom. In other words, to find out what their body is trying to tell them with this discomfort. It’s proposed that the appearance of symptoms such as anxiety is due to the patient’s lack of internal listening to their own needs. The longer their lack of listening goes on, the more chronic and noisy the symptom becomes.

Symptoms and bodily sensations

Some currents of psychotherapy directly connect conflicts with the body. For example, when you feel anguish, it’s common to feel as if you have a lump in your throat. Or, in the case of children, they often transform feelings of sadness and anxiety into stomach aches or headaches.

As a matter of fact, the difference between mind and body isn’t clear. At a theoretical level, this can often limit the overall understanding of mental and general health. The perspectives of humanistic and biodynamic psychology raise the question of the impact that certain events have on the body, especially when they’re sustained over time. Here are some somatizations that often appear in therapy.

  • Muscle stiffness. This appears when people get scared or afraid. It’s a natural mechanism of the body. However, over time, in addition to causing a continuous state of anxiety, it also changes their body posture, creating, for example, a muscle contracture or problem.
  • Dizziness, unsteadiness, and paresthesias. These are some of the most common symptoms produced by panic attacks. The excruciating fear and the feeling of imminent danger repeated over time can cause them to feel as if they’re about to fall or even faint.
  • Gastrointestinal problems. This is a habitual somatization of people who have difficulty expressing their emotions or gradually catalyzing their anguish in a positive way. Stress is one of the most common causes of gastric problems, such as stomach acidity or ulcers.
woman with anxiety
Seeing symptoms as conflict mean they’re viewed as a parallelism between fever and infection. The symptom is an annoying fever that causes discomfort. However, we must discover what the underlying infection is.

The words you don’t say are screaming in your body

According to humanistic psychology, symptoms are the most striking part of a more silent conflict. They’re like the cries of your body, which has found no other way to be heard.

This conception of symptoms is in tune with a more global vision of the mind and body and of health in a more global sense. Thus, your emotions directly influence your body posture, breathing, or the way in which you digest food. A prolonged situation of stress can lead your body to get sick.

Everything that you can’t express or can’t understand or integrate affects the entire functioning of your body and mind. In fact, symptoms are your body’s way of asking to be heard and to act according to its needs. Even if they hurt and you want them to disappear at any cost, they come to bring you a message. Are you listening?

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  • Guía de Bolsillo de la Clasificación CIE-10: Clasificación de los Trastornos Mentales y del Comportamiento. Ed. Médica Panamericana, 2000.
  • Kotsias, B. A. (2006). Freud acertó con la represión. MEDICINA (Buenos Aires)66(4), 372-374.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.