The Problem with Treating Symptoms

There is a parable of a man who was so frustrated by his constant and ever worsening headache that he continued to pound his head against the wall in frustration. He stopped the pounding for a few minutes every hour to take an aspirin with a shot of whiskey. It was only during those moments that he noticed a slight easing of the pain. He assumed either the aspirin or whiskey was working, so he continued the routine hourly, and then resumed pounding his head against the wall. In fact, he couldn’t even remember how or when the headache first started, maybe because it had been part of his life for so long, or maybe because the pounding headache made it hard to think clearly. But he was too busy pounding his head against the wall in frustration to stop and really consider what was continuing to cause his headache and how he might possibly cure it for good.


As absurd as that story may seem logically, it is an accurate metaphor for how our modern society deals with its health problems, whether mental or physical. For example, the incidence of obesity and lifestyle-related chronic illnesses has steadily increased in recent decades, despite thousands of new diet books and dozens of new medications. A key reason for this apparent irony is the fact that the modern healthcare system is oriented towards treating symptoms rather than the underlying causes. In other words, take an aspirin, but don’t stop to consider if pounding your head against the wall is causing your headache.


The Problem with Treating Symptoms


While this approach is very profitable for the providers of such products and services, it is very expensive for the healthcare consumer and society at large, in terms of both economics and quality of life. Conspiracy theorists claim that the pharmaceutical industry and medical establishment (including psychiatrists) do not want to cure diseases and disorders, since cures are profitable only in the short term, while maintenance or modest improvement of the disease state is much more profitable in the long run. There is certainly some legitimacy to this argument, especially given the obvious conflicts of interest, but I believe that this focus on symptoms is due to misguided thinking as much as it is to greed.


It’s human nature to focus on what’s most obvious or apparent, and symptoms are just that – indicators or manifestations of an underlying condition. People with bothersome symptoms want to resolve them, usually without regard for the true, underlying cause. Physicians know that metabolic syndrome (associated with diabetes, hypertension, and obesity) is caused by unhealthy eating habits, but many medical doctors must satisfy patients who seek medications to alleviate those symptoms, especially if both parties know that a major lifestyle change is not forthcoming.


Sadly, our society’s short-term mentality makes it much easier to sweep the dirt under the rug than to clean it up. The sooner we make those pesky symptoms disappear, ideally without much effort, the sooner we can get back to our busy lives.


Even within the realm of lifestyle change, well-meaning nutritionists may devote their careers to helping people through diet and behavior modification, only to be frustrated by results that are short-lived or non-existent. In 1999, I earned my Masters degree in Nutrition and Health Promotion after more than two years of graduate coursework. While I was excited to use my newly acquired skills to save the world one fat person at a time, I quickly realized that even the best conscious-level advice seldom produces lasting behavioral change. After all, eating habits are only symptoms, and many doctors and dietitians focus primarily on behaviors and pay mere lip service to the emotions that drive them. In reality, we should do the opposite – acknowledge the obvious behaviors but focus primarily on influencing the underlying emotions.


So why didn’t my professors warn me that the vast majority of my overweight clients would struggle to lose weight? Perhaps those “experts” were so deeply entrenched within the paradigm of treating symptoms that they failed to realize they were missing the essential insights that I would learn a few years after leaving my profession as a disillusioned nutritionist.


In my next article, I’ll reveal the three key insights that led me to become a hypnotist years later, a decision that enabled me to help people resolve long-lasting emotional and behavioral challenges.


About Todd Goodwin

Todd Goodwin has helped thousands of clients to overcome emotional and behavioral challenges by changing how they think. His successful strategy has been to identify and resolve the root causes of those problems, instead of merely treating symptoms. Todd is among the one in 500 hypnotists who have earned the designation of Board Certified Fellow by the National Guild of Hypnotists. He is also a certified Master Practitioner of NLP and a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine. Todd has studied human behavior since 1995, earning a bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science and a master’s degree in Nutrition and Health Promotion. In 2007, he opened the Miami Hypnosis Center (now Goodwin Hypnosis). Todd is also the author of the book, “Break the Chains of Smoking: How to Escape the Mental and Emotional Prison That Keeps You Addicted,” and creator of its associated online quit smoking system. You can learn more at