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The Psychology of Symptoms: The 4 Psychological Types

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A coffee lounge bar filled with stools and an image of Emily Rosen

Experiencing unwanted symptoms is part of being human. We all have days when we feel something we’d rather not. Whether the discomfort is physical, emotional, or mental, we can count on life to bring us a steady stream of symptoms – each of which is there to provide us with a unique opportunity for growth and learning. When you notice something going on in your body that doesn’t feel very good, what’s your first response? Do you try to power through the issue, or do you stop to listen to what the symptom might be telling you? In this thought-provoking new video from #IPEtv, Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, explores four of the most common ways that people deal with symptoms, and invites you to consider how you can be a better listener to your body’s hidden messages.

YouTube video

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Here is a transcript of this week’s video:

Hi, I’m Emily Rosen, Chief Operating Officer for the Institute for the Psychology of Eating.

Today’s Topic: The Psychology of Symptoms

The 4 Psychological Types

More specifically, how do you deal with symptoms?

If you’re a human being alive on planet Earth, then chances are, you’ve had a few symptoms in your time.

When I say symptoms, I mean this: any kind of health complaint, health challenge, pain, discomfort, digestion not so good, headaches, skin problems, bad breath, low energy, allergies, asthma, sneezing, coughing, shortness of breath, acid reflux, constipation, brittle nails, thinning hair, extra weight, overeating, binge eating, unwanted food habits, cravings, mood swings, poor memory, poor hearing – so in other words, just about anything you can imagine in the body and with food.

Here’s the punch line: there exists a psychology of symptoms. Each of us will relate to our symptoms in a very unique way. And indeed, the way we relate to our symptoms will largely determine how long they linger for, if they get worse, better, if our experience is more of a flow, or more challenging, and the kinds of food and lifestyle choices we make.

What I’m suggesting is that understanding the psychology of symptoms is extremely useful when it comes to health and happiness.

So, as a way to understand how each one of us relates with our symptoms, here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, we’ve identified four common psychological styles when it comes to symptom management.

Here they are:

Style #1 – Ignore
Style #2 – React
Style #3 – Respond
Style #4 – Deepen

Now let’s break them down:


The first style, ignore, means just that – maybe my symptom will go away if I don’t pay attention to it. Out of sight, out of mind. Bury your head in the sand. Disregard it, pretend it’s not there, avoid it, forget about it, hide it from other people, and just hope that things will magically get better. This strategy is essentially denial. And, it might not be such a bad strategy as often times, things do have a way of simply resolving themselves. Sometimes it IS a matter of just letting things be, and living with them.

A lot of us don’t have the luxury – the money, time, or education – to be able to address our symptoms. But what I want to emphasize in this first style is that ignoring our symptoms is not the best strategy to use on a consistent basis. It doesn’t further the action. It doesn’t educate us. There is little to no learning that happens. And whatever the symptom is trying to actually tell us, we’ll never quite know because we’re ignoring it. Maybe your headache is caused by mold in the house, or a food allergy, or drinking too much caffeine, or too much alcohol, or a sensitivity to household chemicals. But again, ignoring the symptom doesn’t help us understand why it’s there in the first place.


The second style of symptom management is to react. This means fighting the symptom, being afraid of it, struggling and grappling with it, perhaps attacking it, or becoming anxious around it, but usually this style focuses on eradicating the unwanted symptom, stamping it out, masking it in any way we can, and going after it with whatever weapons we have at our disposal. On the one hand, this seems to make sense. After all, if I have a digestive issue, or some extra weight, or a skin rash, then these things are certainly problems that no one really wants to have. So why not attack them? Why not do the best we can and as quickly as we can to make sure they leave us as soon as possible and never return again?

But here’s the challenge with this approach: it has us in fear and stress. And any time we are in the physiologic stress response, healing, maintenance, and repair of body tissue is significantly diminished. And this strategy often has us taking either prescription or over-the-counter drugs that ultimately don’t serve us. But the bottom line is, we never really explore why this symptom is there in the first place and what it’s trying to tell us.


The third style of symptom management is to respond. This is about taking more responsibility. This means that we listen more deeply. That we be more considerate. Slow down. Be thoughtful. Inquire. Get curious. Get opinions. Do some research. See if you can find the best strategies, the best supplements, maybe there are some natural remedies, maybe there might be some causes to our symptoms that we haven’t noticed, and maybe we need to really ask for help from someone who takes a more holistic or integrated approach.

This is the first style of symptom management that goes for the higher ground. It’s a more conscious approach. It’s a more evolutionary and transformational strategy. Simply put – it’s a more mature way of being with the body and its challenges.


The last symptom management style is to deepen. This means we respond as in the previous strategy – but that we go even deeper. We ask even more meaningful questions, such as: What does the symptom point to? Is it connected to other unseen areas in life? What is my symptom trying to tell me in its hidden and metaphoric language? Is my symptom trying to teach me something about myself, or about life?

This last style assumes that there is indeed a hidden language to symptoms that can often run deep and point to lessons and learnings that we might never have expected . This style is the epitome of relating to our symptoms in the most powerful and effective way.

Check out the styles, see where you fit in, begin to experiment more with using a responding or deepening style, and notice what happens.

I hope this was helpful and thanks so much for your time and interest.

Please email us at info@psychologyofeating.com if you have specific questions and we will be sure to get back to you.

A coffee lounge bar filled with stools and an image of Emily Rosen

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